Police officer Whitney Burns demonstrates how the Project Lifesaver transmitter helps locate a missing person. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Samantha McDorr has been able to sleep a little easier at night for the past five years, knowing that her daughter Sage, 14, who has Autism, is wearing her Project Lifesaver bracelet. 

Since 2014, the Brunswick Police Departed has participated in Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit that trains law enforcement to use the bracelet’s electronic tracking to locate people with conditions and disorders like Autism or Alzheimer’s that may cause them to wander.

But five years later, Sage remains the department’s only client. 

“I’m dumbfounded that nobody else has taken advantage of it,” McDorr said.

“Cmdr. Mark Waltz has said that typically there has to be a tragedy for people to realize that something is necessary,” she added, saying she hopes that won’t have to happen here. 

Some hesitation may boil down to cost. Each bracelet is $325, which for many people can be cost-prohibitive. 

But as Joseph Westrich, communications officer with the Brunswick Police Department and Project Lifesaver coordinator said, “it’s cost-prohibitive until your child wanders for the first time.” After that, the price doesn’t seem as high, he said. 

To help, police are partnering with local businesses, individuals or groups who may want to sponsor bracelets. 

According to Judy Kelsh, senior director of marketing communications for Mid Coast-Parkview Health, the hospital is sponsoring five of the bracelets, “with the understanding that this will be a great benefit for seniors in our community … for which cost is a barrier to safety.”

Autism is a spectrum disorder that can range from mild to severe. Symptoms can include speech issues and cognitive delays, as well as difficulties with understanding social cues and communicating. People with Autism are often known to “bolt,” or leave wherever they are very quickly and often without notice. On top of that, people with Autism are commonly drawn to water, making it all the more important that they are found quickly. 

We’ve got to keep a really close eye on her at all times,” McDorr said of her daughter. “We’re very concerned she will leave the house or leave school and we won’t have any way to know where she is … there’s a chance that she might think it’s funny to be hiding and if she didn’t have that bracelet on, they might never find her,” she said. “And that’s really scary. (People with Autism) don’t understand. They can’t rationalize that they could be in trouble.” 

Project Lifesaver is an international nonprofit that uses a special transmitter with a unique code in each bracelet that law enforcement, using a handheld device, can use to track the bracelet within a quarter-mile radius. The batteries are checked and changed by law enforcement monthly, which also gives officers the chance to build relationships with the clients and become a friendly face.

This, McDorr said, “makes me feel like they care about her because they’ve gotten to know her. It makes me confident that if we called, they would be out the door looking for her and they would find her.”

Without that bracelet it would be like “a blank canvas,” she said. 

Project Lifesaver has conducted more than 3,600 rescues across the United States and Canada in the past 20 years, without a single loss of life, according to its website. Most people are found within an hour.

During the Brunswick police training, McDorr said she and her oldest, Colby, were each able to wear a bracelet and try to not only hide, but get away from officers searching for them. It only took minutes to be found, she said. “it was such a relief to me.”

A large part of the training includes education about Autism and Alzheimer’s — what can happen, what to look for, how to respond to different scenarios. This is something many Brunswick officers already have experience with, thanks to the department’s developmental disability registration, which is a database of people in the community with a developmental disability that law enforcement can reference in case of an emergency.

The registry includes the person’s age, photo and address, as well as certain likes and dislikes that may help an officer rescue them — for example, if they know a child really loves chocolate or dogs, they can bring chocolate in the car or start a conversation about dogs to engage them. This program works well in tandem with Project Lifesaver, according to officer Whitney Burns, who runs the registry, but neither service replaces the other.

The device used to locate the transmitter and a Project Lifesaver bracelet. Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record

McDorr approached the Brunswick Police Department  in 2014 with the idea of bringing Project Lifesaver to Brunswick to help keep Sage safe. 

Her daughter loves to paint and is incredibly loving, McDorr told The Times Record in 2014, and her smile “lights up the room.” But she can also be unpredictable.

“With her, it’s completely random,” McDorr said at the time. “She’ll go six to eight months without (bolting). Then, the other day, she did it twice. My husband and I lose sleep about it at night.”

She said earlier this week that she knows of other kids, some who may leave in the middle of the night, who could benefit from Project Lifesaver.

Those with memory issues can also wander or become lost.

More than 28,000 people in Maine are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent study by the Alzheimer’s Association. Those numbers, already thought to be underreported, are expected to increase by 25% by 2025 and more than double by 2050. 

It is estimated that up to 70% of people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia wander away from theircaregivers or care setting at some point in the illness, according to a report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Of those, 75% leave on foot.  Wandering is usually a result of the brain being unable to recall familiar surroundings or routes combined with the brain’s inability to problem solve, according to the report.

Samantha McDorr and her daughter Sage in 2014 when the family first began raising money to help bring Project Lifesaver to Brunswick. Sage is 14 now, and a student at Brunswick Junior High School. Times Record file photo

People with Alzheimer’s unlike other forms of dementia, commonly experience neurological and sensory impairments so that the missing person may not recognize the body’s signals to stop, such as pain, dehydration and hunger.

“This is why a missing person with (Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia) is capable of walking farther than his or her physical condition might indicate, hide in a thicket of thorny bushes, or walk without stopping for sustenance or restrooms,” the report states. 

Because of this, “time is really critical,” Westrich said. 

The same goes for people with Autism. 

A study by the Interactive Autism Network found that nearly half of parents reported that their child with Autism had attempted to wander or run away at least once. Of these, 65% involved a close call with traffic and 24% involved a case with drowning. 

“I don’t know what it is,” McDorr said. “They’re really drawn to water. They almost always find those kids in water, it’s just horrible.” 

Sage is no exception and will get fixated on videos of people underwater, according to her mother, but they have not had much success in teaching her to swim. “It’s really scary,” McDorr said. 

“This does not replace what caregivers are currently doing to take care of their (loved ones),” Westrich said, “this is simply a safety net. So if they do wander, using this device, we can find them a lot quicker.” 

It costs a police department $6,000 to start the program and do the necessary training, Westrich said, but the amount of manpower and the number of agencies involved in a search for a missing person is far greater. 

He cited a 2017 case in Bristol, where an 82-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease wandered away from home and was found, “upright and talking but cold and wet” more than 12 hours after he went missing, according to the Lincoln County News. The Maine Warden Service, the Bremen Fire Department, Bristol Fire and Rescue, Lincoln County EMA, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Lincoln County Search and Rescue Team participated in the search. 

Lincoln County has since become a member of Project Lifesaver, joining Brunswick, Auburn, Lewiston, Cumberland County, Scarborough and Ogunquit. Project Lifesaver’s only two rescues in Maine were in Auburn in 2015, just three days apart from each other. 

Westrich said he is trying to get Freeport and Bath police departments on board as well. 

But first, they hope to get more clients and more sponsorships locally, and Westrich is filling out grant applications whenever he can to try to bring more money to the program.  

Anyone interested in receiving a Project Lifesaver bracelet or in sponsoring one is asked to contact Joseph Westrich at [email protected] or Whitney Burns at [email protected]

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