WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — Between 2011 and 2020, 1,516 children on the autism spectrum were reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It’s a stressful reality for many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a 2018 study funded by Autism Speaks, nearly half of parents reported that their child with ASD had tried to wander or run away at least once after age 4.

However, one community in Middle Tennessee has a program that is helping give parents and caregivers “peace of mind.” The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office is one of only three agencies in Middle Tennessee that partner with Project Lifesaver.

Williamson County Deputy Bryan Welch and Deputy Wes Crigger. (WKRN photo)

The nonprofit, founded in 1999, provides first responders and caregivers across the globe with radio technology to help them quickly locate people with cognitive disorders who are prone to wandering.

“It’s a very beneficial program,” said WCSO Deputy Bryan Welch. “I think one of our (rescues) lasted a little over 20 minutes and he was on a golf course, but that’s something that could have lasted two to three hours if we just had people walking around looking for him.”

Giving families ‘peace of mind’

Welch has been instructing the program since 2007, although it was first launched in Williamson County a few years earlier in 2005. Since then, Welch said deputies have rescued five people enrolled in the program. The rescues have all taken about 15 to 20 minutes.

“One of ours lasted five minutes,” he said. “We ended up finding the kid hiding in the car in the garage, but we didn’t know where he was at when we first got dispatched.”

Currently the WCSO has 10 clients enrolled in the program, ranging from a 9-year-old girl to a man in his 80s, who Welch said was one of their first clients to sign up. The program doesn’t just help children with cognitive disorders, but also adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

A device used by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to help find people with cognitive disorders who have wandered off. (WKRN photo)

“This was developed for caregivers, to kind of give them peace of mind,” Welch said. “They can go to sleep at night and know that if their loved one wanders off, they’ve got a way to find them.”

The 80-year-old man, who Welch said was diagnosed with brain cancer, was first enrolled in the program after he wandered away from his home in Fairview.

“They had been out looking for him for two or three hours and got a helicopter out, and the helicopter found him in about 15 minutes, 100 yards from his house,” Welch said. “If he would have had this, we probably would have located him within 10 to 15 minutes tops.”

Others began enrolling after word of the program spread, although some kids have stopped wandering as they’ve grown older.

How it works

The radio technology provided by Project Lifesaver allows deputies to find people much faster than other methods like pinging their GPS location. Each person enrolled in Project Lifesaver receives a small transmitter that they can wear on their wrist or ankle.

A band and radio transmitter used to help locate people with cognitive disorders who wander off. (WKRN photo)

That transmitter emits an individualized frequency signal that can then be used to track their precise location. A hand-held device that detects radio frequencies can help deputies locate someone up to two miles away, while similar tech equipped on helicopters can find a person 12 miles away.

“That’s the reason why all of our helicopter pilots are certified in it because once you get up in the air— the helicopter is not going to bring you right to the person, but what it will do is it will narrow our search area down,” Welch said.

Deputies also have an antenna they can hook to their patrol cars that can detect a signal from the transmitter within a quarter mile radius, Welch said. The devices emit a sound that grows louder as they move in closer to the signal, leading them to a person’s exact location.

“Everything has a radio frequency, it’s been around for years, so they know it’s accurate and it will work,” Welch said. “This is so accurate that we had one of our clients’ kids cut it off and she couldn’t find it, so we went to her house and found it in a trash can.” 

Cutting down time, cost of searches

While GPS can help deputies get an idea of where to search, WCSO Deputy Wes Crigger— one of 10 deputies certified in the program — said it is not as precise. When deputies ping a cell phone, the location could be anywhere within about a mile radius.

Project Lifesaver equipment (WKRN photo)

“You can zoom in on a map and see that my phone is at the CoolSprings Mall, but you’re going to see the roof of the building,” Crigger said. “So, if you’re inside, you’re not going to do any good with GPS, but this will point you in the right direction.” 

The radio technology also eliminates other common problems with K9 searches and rescue missions. Crigger said K9s can have trouble tracking missing people if another person has gone out looking for them and tainted the tracks.

“There’s no way a dog can track through that, and most of the time those people that are in the program wouldn’t have their own phone to ping to try to find a location,” he said. “So, it’s really hard and it can definitely take hours to find anybody even 100 yards away from a house.”

Project Lifesaver cuts down on the time and resources needed for rescue missions, which can amount to millions of dollars, and also lowers the risk of injury. In one case, Welch said he responded to a call where a man was driving down the wrong side of an interstate.

“As an Alzheimer’s patient gets something in their head, there’s no stopping them,” he said. “I’ve dealt with one, she was a schoolteacher in Texas, and she was trying to take off to go back because she thought she had to go teach school that morning.”

Only three agencies in Middle Tennessee use program

Welch said there are calls regarding people who have wandered off anywhere from once a month to three times a month in Williamson County. However, that number is likely much higher in larger cities and areas with less resources for people with cognitive disorders.

A device used by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to help find people with cognitive disorders who have wandered off. (WKRN photo)

Currently the only other agencies to partner with Project Lifesaver in Middle Tennessee are the Lincoln County and Putnam County Sheriff’s Departments. The majority are in East Tennessee, where Welch said there are typically more search and rescue missions in the mountains.

However, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office often gets inquiries from people in Davidson and Rutherford Counties. At this time, deputies only provide services in their jurisdiction, but will assist in cases where tourists enrolled in Project Lifesaver have gone missing.

Welch said the upfront cost to start the program may be deterring some agencies. Each device costs about $1,500, in addition to costs for the personalized radio transmitters, bands and batteries. However, Williamson County was able to find the program largely through donations.

“Once it’s paid for, it’s a relatively cheap program to keep running year-round,” said Welch, who added that he sees it as highly beneficial to other jurisdictions. “You see on the news all of the time Nashville and them are looking for an Alzheimer’s patient.” 

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The program is free for families who enroll. Those outside of Williamson County can also purchase their own transmitter kit for about $900. To find out more information about Project Lifesaver, click here.