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Upper Michigan sheriff departments launch Project Lifesaver

Garrett Neese
The Daily Mining Gazette (Houghton)

Hancock — Local sheriff's departments are partnering on a project to ensure at-risk people with cognitive impairments who wander from home can be easily located.

Representatives from Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties' sheriff's departments announced participation in Project Lifesaver, a program that provides radio frequency transmitters to be worn by people prone to wandering.

It was created by its parent company, a non-profit based in Virginia. More than 3,800 people have been rescued through the program, according to Project Lifesaver's website.

The four sheriff's departments will partner with Superior Search & Rescue. A Portage Health Foundation grant will fund transmitters for 50 families with a member who has a cognitive impairment, such as Down syndrome or dementia. If local agencies get a call that the person is missing, they will be able to send signals to the transmitter via antenna.

Houghton County Sheriff's Office Det. Lt. Charlie Klein, right, announces that four sheriff's departments will participate in Project Lifesaver during a press conference on Oct. 11, 2021, at the Portage Health Foundation in Hancock. Local sheriff's departments are partnering on a project to ensure at-risk people with cognitive impairments who wander from home can be easily located. The program provides radio frequency transmitters to be worn by people prone to wandering.

Members from each department will undergo three days of training. They will then come back and train the rest of their departments. Klein is hoping to have the first transmitters ready by early December, the Daily Mining Gazette reports.

This spring, Houghton County Detective Lt. Charlie Klein began looking for programs after the death of Ontonagon County resident Cam Besonen, a 17-year-old autistic boy who had wandered away from home. It hit home for Klein, who has a 5-year-old son with Down syndrome.

"After watching this tragedy unfold, I saw a need in our community to protect our most vulnerable people with cognitive disabilities," he said.

Klein brought the idea to the late-Sheriff Brian McLean and Undersheriff Kevin Coppo, who "jumped at the chance" to help, Klein said.

The other three sheriff's departments were just as enthusiastic. After realizing cost would be an issue, Klein reached out to Portage Health Foundation, which encouraged him to submit an application.

Searches through Project Lifesaver take an average of half an hour, Klein said.

Ontonagon County Sheriff Dale Rantala compared that to the three-day search for Besonen, which cost more than $185,000 and used 2,400 staff hours. He was found less than a mile from his home under a tree, which hadn't been visible by an aerial search, Rantala said.

"I would love it if we have this technology and never need it," he said. "But if we need it, it's going to have a much better outcome than I had … I've been sheriff for nine years and undersheriff for 12, and that was the worst day of my career, telling parents that we found him, but not alive."

The band is worn on the person's wrist, similar to a Fitbit, Klein said. Each band will have an individualized frequency that can only be picked up by the machines at the Sheriff's Department and Superior Search & Rescue, which will be turned on in the event of a missing person call, Klein said.

The initial startup costs are about $350 per family, including the transmitter and a year's supply of bands and batteries, Klein said. Law enforcement will change out the batteries every two months.

"We hope with the support of the community that we can continue to cover the fees for all families that want to enroll," Klein said.