Program aimed at missing persons

Jim Nelson, Rantoul, Country Companies Insurance agent, presents a check for $1,500 to Rantoul Police Chief Tony Brown. At left is police Lt. Justin Bouse. The money will go toward the cost of starting a Project Lifesaver program in Rantoul to aid in searching for missing persons.

RANTOUL — Emergency personnel got lucky after an autistic Rantoul man went missing last winter. The temperature was below zero with wind chill. A light snow had fallen, and a foot print was discovered that pointed to the general location of the man.

But it wasn’t until a plane from Scott Air Force Base arrived with a thermal-imaging camera that the missing man was located during the night time search.

The “escapee” is a habitual runaway. His most recent venture out came two weeks ago when he got away from his home when his caretaker was taking a shower. He was found nine hours later walking near St. Joseph.

The problem of finding missing personnel was brought home again last week when a woman with dementia could not be found after last being seen at Eagle’s View Supportive Living and Memory Care. She was found 19 hours later on the third floor of the facility.

Searching for missing people can tie up a great deal of manpower for extended periods and be costly. That’s one reason the Rantoul Police Department plans to implement a new program that will alert caregivers and others if an at-risk individual wanders away. It’s called Project Lifesaver.

Rantoul police Lt. Justin Bouse said at-risk people would wear either a bracelet on the wrist or an anklet. An electronic “fence” would be established. If the person passes 100 to 300 feet from where he is supposed to be, an alarm would sound to alert the caregiver. It would also enable emergency personnel to be quickly notified.

“That’s critical to be alerted quickly,” Bouse said. “Once they get out and we’re notified right away, it’s hard for them to get a long way away.”

Bouse said police are sometimes “30 to 45 minutes behind” after being notified a person is missing. The autistic man “likes to run,” Bouse said, and is sometimes two to three miles away.

Another feature of the program is a chip in the bracelet or anklet that emits a radio signal that will indicate where the person is — a homing device.

The department could buy a drone later that would pick up the radio signal of the person being sought. It could also be equipped with a thermal-imaging camera that would be invaluable after sundown.

Project Lifesaver is not a fail-safe program. There is no guarantee that someone wearing a device wouldn’t figure out how to remove it.

Police Chief Tony Brown said there are three local individuals who have to be watched closely because they like to escape the watch of their caregivers. The autistic man has turned up missing several times in the last few months.

Implementation of the program could save someone’s life. Brown said an autistic Decatur boy who escaped his caregiver drowned.

Cost of the Project Lifesaver program is $5,500. Jim Nelson, an agent for Country Companies insurance, recently presented the police department a $1,500 check on behalf of the insurance company’s Helping Heroes program.

The program cost includes equipment plus training for five to 10 officers to operate the gear.

Implementation of the program could also greatly simplify things for police.

When the word goes out that someone is missing, public assistance can be a help. It can also be a hindrance. A number of public volunteers searched for Lela O’Bryan when police announced she was missing from Eagle’s View.

“When it comes to unorganized searches, it makes it hard for us to manage,” Bouse said. “Do we like to have more eyes out there? Yes. But we like to have some management of where they’re searching, what they’re doing. Some of those old buildings on base that have been found open, make sure (searchers are) not endangering themselves by going in.”

Brown said some volunteers show up at the police department and want to help.

“That can be tough to manage because we don’t necessarily have an assignment to give them,” Brown said.