MADERA COUNTY – The danger of having a loved one afflicted with dementia, Alzheimer’s or autism wandering off and becoming lost is clear and present for family members.
Since not every family can afford special facilities designed to keep a constant eye on those who are prone to wander, many are forced to handle the full time job alone.
To provide assistance and relieve some of the burden, Sheriff John Anderson, in 2004, launched Central California’s first-ever program designed to locate those at-risk individuals. Operation Lost & Found has become the best defense for those families who shoulder the burden of keeping track of their loved ones.
Now boasting more than 100 clients, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Operation Lost & Found.
This nationally acclaimed program was originally established to serve those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Today, the program also caters to autistic and Down’s syndrome clients.
“Operation Lost & Found is not only helping our senior citizens, but families with children as young as age 4,” says Sheriff Anderson.
Should a client go missing, the Sheriff’s Office has the technological ability to track that person by both ground and air. What used to take days, even months to locate someone, can now be tackled within a few hours.
The program uses state-of-the-art radio transmitters to locate people who are at risk of wandering away. But finding clients who are in need of this service has always been tricky, says Sheriff Anderson.
“Due to stringent HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] laws, we have no way of knowing who’s in need. In order for us to help them, they have to contact us first.”
Over the years, countless tales have been shared about the department’s rescues. One case in particular focused on a Madera County man, known only as Client #61.
Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he vanished from his home in January 2009. Within an hour he was found, roughly 1.5 miles away. Sheriff Anderson says the bracelet he was wearing saved his life.
Each client has a personalized bracelet equipped with the client’s ID and the Madera County Sheriff’s Office telephone number. It emits a tracking signal 24/7. Should a client wander away, Search & Rescue Teams use a Mobile Locator Tracking System (which works like a Geiger counter) to hone in on the bracelet.
While the radio capabilities only work for clients living in Madera County, Sheriff Anderson remembers one case where a client disappeared inside a hospital in Fresno. Fortunately she was wearing one of the bracelets, so when security saw the ID with the department’s telephone number, they called the office immediately. The client was reunited with her family a short time later.
HISTORY BEHIND OPERATION LOST & FOUND
In the summer of 2003, the Sheriff’s Office was averaging at least one reported missing person per month. It was also during this time that a woman with the advanced stages of dementia vanished from her home in Coarsegold.
During that search, Sheriff Anderson proposed the department begin to research programs designed to keep track of those who are prone to wander away from home. While the start-up costs were steep, he believed in the long run it would prove to be a sound investment. He was right.
In the case of the missing Coarsegold woman, more than 400 volunteers from seven different counties assisted in a search that would last several months. The Fresno Army National Guard even joined the effort, airlifting nearly 30 Search & Rescue volunteers into the rugged French Gulch canyon near Ahwahnee. The search began in April 2003. Tragically her remains were discovered seven months later.
Almost a year to the date following her disappearance, Sheriff John Anderson successfully launched Operation Lost & Found, which is run by Madera County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Unit.
Today, this tracking system takes an average of 19 minutes to 24 hours to locate a missing person.
“Several clients have been lost since we started the program,” says Sheriff Anderson, “and I am proud to tell you that every one of them has been found, safe and sound.”
Operation Lost & Found is not funded by the county. It operates solely on public donations from citizens, civic and religious organizations.
For more information about Operation Lost & Found, contact either Sergeant Jim Bernardi, Madera County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Coordinator at 559-642-3201 or Erica Stuart, Public Information Officer at 559- 675-7976.
How Operation Lost & Found Works
A family member or caregiver will be required to complete personal data about the client along with a recent photo that will be filed with the Sheriff’s Department. If the client cannot afford the cost of service, the bracelets and monthly maintenance may be donated by the program. Should the client no longer need the bracelet, the Sheriff’s Department asks that the bracelet be returned to the program so that another client in need can join Operation Lost & Found.
- Every Client receives a personalized transmitter wristband.
- The wristband emits a tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week.
- If a Client should turn up missing, the Sheriff’s Search & Rescue Team responds to the wanderer’s area and begins searching using the mobile locator tracking system.
- Locating clients can be done simultaneously by ground and air.
- Ground searches can pick up a signal up to a mile. Aerial searches can pickup signals from 5 miles away.
- Each bracelet has a unique radio frequency that belongs exclusively to the individual client.
- Volunteers with the Madera County Search & Rescue Team make monthly visits to the client’s home to inspect bracelets and install new batteries and talk with clients, family members and caregivers.