Time-tested technology: Why most SWFL law enforcement trust it for tracking people with cognitive issues

Author: Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur; Assignment Editor Robin Wolf Photographer: Jacob McNamara Producer: Assignment Editor Robin Wolf
Published: Updated:

For caregivers of loved ones with memory or learning challenges, the constant worry of them wandering off and getting hurt can be agonizing.

It happens too often to people of all ages.

Research shows around half of all children between the ages of four and ten years old with autism will wander, and as many as 60% of people with dementia will walk away from a safe location—many do so repeatedly.

There are a lot of tracking devices on the market you can use to help protect your loved ones, including the Apple AirTags, but WINK News Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur shines a light on a solution praised as the ‘gold standard’ by local law enforcement for search and rescue.

“Where are the sirens for this cop car?” asks 22-year-old Bradley Claus, as he sits in a Cape Coral Police cruiser.

Bradley loves his visits with Cape Coral Police Lieutenant Patrick O’Grady.

“What does a police officer do? They arrest the bad guys!” Bradley exclaimed with excitement.

Bradley has known O’Grady since 2016, and touches base with him nearly every day!

Bradley affectionately shared, “Pat O’Grady, I always call you after my dad,” to which O’Grady responded, “Yes, you do. You call me every night.”

Bradley, who is autistic and has epilepsy, connected with O’Grady through a program called Project Lifesaver.

“It’s a radio transmitter,” explained O’Grady. He then turned to Bradley and asked, “It comes with a pretty cool band, right?”

Cape Coral Police Department Lieutenant Patrick O’Grady and Bradley Claus talk about Project Lifesaver

“Yep!” Bradley confirmed enthusiastically.

“Think that’s pretty cool?”

“Yep!” Bradley responded again.

Project Lifesaver wristband

“So, if somebody goes missing, they wander, we can track the radio frequency, and locate their whereabouts. It’s simple,” O’Grady stated.

Gene Saunders came up with the concept, drawing on decades of law enforcement experience in search and rescue operations.

“I even said to my wife a number of times, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this,'” explained Saunders. “I got a brochure about wildlife tracking. I looked at it, and the thought occurred to me: if we can do this with birds, we can do it with all these other animals. Why can’t we adapt this to do it with vulnerable people?”

Saunders discovered he could. One of his first cases nearly 25 years ago demonstrated its effectiveness.

“In just one and a half minutes—I found him,” he explained. “He was in a storage closet beneath an apartment complex stairwell. He had gone in, closed the door, and locked it.”

Saunders credits 4,200 rescues nationwide to Project Lifesaver. The program is utilized by 1,800 law enforcement agencies, including the Cape Coral, Naples, and North Port Police Departments and the Charlotte and Collier County Sheriff’s Offices.

“Looks like an old TV antenna. But this thing is wonderful,” praised Captain Joseph Fussell from the North Port Police Department.

North Police Police Department Captain Joseph Fussell demonstrates how Project Lifesaver works.

He explains why: “It’s hurricane-proof. All the cell towers can go down, the radios can go down, the telephones can go down, and this equipment will still work.”

Collier County Sergeant Richard Nieves emphasizes its usefulness, considering the unique challenges in finding people with cognitive issues.

Collier County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Richard Nieves

“Some elude their rescuers, they tend to run away… They’re attracted to bodies of water, or roadways. And as a result, it creates somewhat of a special risk,” explained Nieves.

The catch: you can only access this service if your local law enforcement takes part in the program.

“Call the Lee County Sheriff’s Office today to find out how you can protect your loved one with Project Lifesaver,” advises a spokesperson in a promotional video from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office used Project Lifesaver for 12 years before dropping it in 2019, leaving most of the largest county in Southwest Florida, with about 800,000 people, as a Project Lifesaver dead zone. In that same year, LCSO launched a different missing persons program.

“Sheriff Carmine Marceno, in partnership with the United Way and the Sheriff’s Youth Activity League, proudly presents Reunite,” as stated in a promotional video.

LCSO claimed ReUnite utilizes tracking devices to help in searches. To verify this claim, I reached out to LCSO’s partner United Way.

Celine: “Do you guys use any trackers with ReUnite?”

Mitchell: “No, we don’t use trackers in-house. We don’t provide those.”

Madison Mitchell, Vice President of Community Impact, United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades

Frank Glover, a retired LCSO lieutenant from the K-9 Unit when Project Lifesaver was dropped, highlights its importance. He explains that it enhanced searches with the dogs, particularly in harsh weather conditions and scorching heat, where they can struggle to follow scents.

“Direct sunlight is hard on odor, it makes it challenging,” Glover explained. “If you look at, you know, June, July, August with the temperature and the humidity, you know, you get 30 minutes into the search, 40 minutes into the search, you’re wearing dogs out for sure.”

Glover expressed uncertainty about why LCSO dropped the program. He questioned, “Why not have both?”

“Why would you take away something that’s already proven effective, regardless of the conditions, and just say we don’t need that anymore, and we’ll just go this direction?” Glover questioned.

Bradley: “I wear it every day.”

Celine: “Tell me why.”

Bradley: “Because I like to wear it. It will keep me safe.”

It has helped to keep him safe since 2009, offering his mother, Nicole Malin, peace of mind.

Nicole Malin, Cape Coral Lieutenant Patrick O’Grady, and Bradley Claus pose for a picture.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office will not talk to us on camera about its search and rescue programs. Reach out to Project Lifesaver or your local law enforcement to see what options are available in your community.

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