I am disappointed and saddened to announce that the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department has decided not to sign a contract with Project Lifesaver.  This is a huge blow to not only the Autism community, but also the entire disabled population.

On October 20 of this year, my Autism Advocate friends, Renee Kiernan, Shawn Neff, Carol Salber and I met with Sheriff Tim Dunning, Captain Tom Wheeler, Chief Deputy Marty Bilek and other staff members at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to discuss the use of a tracking device known as Project Lifesaver. (Click here for details on the device and how it works.)

It should be noted that Project Lifesaver is already available and running in Sarpy County. Although we advocates spent two hours debating use of this particular equipment, it is my opinion that the words fell upon deaf ears and that the decision had already been made to refuse any contractual agreement whatsoever. The Sheriff’s Department simply is uninterested in helping the disabled in any other way than the traditional 9-1-1 call.

During the meeting, Captain Wheeler and others pointed to other tracking devices that use GPS. Project Lifesaver uses radio transmission. Both types of signals have positive and negative aspects. However, only Project Lifesaver is waterproof. Children and adults on the Autism Spectrum have a tendency to be attracted to water.

I had tested a device made by a company called Breadcrumb last summer. What I personally found is that the batteries died very quickly and that the response time was unacceptable. A perimeter is created around a specific environment and the caretakers for the client using Breadcrumb are able to go online to track the client should he or she go missing. Once the client goes out of the perimeter, Breadcrumb is supposed to call the caretaker (who would register with the company online). During my personal test, I waited 15 minutes and received no call. When I called the company to find out why no one called me to let me know the perimeter had been broken, all the representative could tell me was that 15 minutes is the standard wait time. But I received no call. None. 

In theory, having personal online access to a website such as Breadcrumb saves both time and money for the community.  Most clients are found by their care providers or nearby residents before the police ever arrive at the client’s home. However, so many potential clients for any tracking system in our community are on fixed incomes and may or may not have a computer, Blackberry or such device to check a website. Such gadgets are simply unaffordable.

Back in 2007, Nebraska chapters of the Autism Society and the Downs Syndrome Association purchased the Project Lifesaver equipment and a few bracelets (the client wears a small waterproof bracelet at all times should said client ever go missing) via grant money. My fellow advocates and I have offered to raise the necessary funding for more bracelets, even volunteering our services to change the batteries during a preliminary trial that would include no more than 10 participants, one of whom would have been my son, Matthew.

Sadly, Captain Tom Wheeler informed my friend Renee during a recent phone conversation that no contract would be signed, even suggesting that a charitable organization, i.e. Renee, apparently, sign a contract instead. This is completely unacceptable. 

Approximately 46,000 residents with disabilities live in Nebraska, 40% of whom reside in Douglas County alone! Captain Wheeler did say, however, that should someone from Sarpy County find himself or herself lost in Douglas County, the Sheriff’s Department would be willing to use said equipment in a search and rescue mission. 

If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. “Huh?” was the first word that came to mind when I received the news from Renee. My head is still spinning with confusion. The solution to funding, training of officers and the other major obstacle, the dreaded changing of the batteries, was presented during the two-hour meeting. Again, it is my opinion that the decision was already made long before any of the advocates stepped into the conference room.

I would remind all readers that Sheriff Tim Dunning is an elected official. His number is 402-444-6627. I strongly urge citizens of Douglas County to call him personally and demand that he uses the equipment already provided to the department to protect our disabled persons.

My son, Matthew, has already eloped more times than I can count. On two occasions I’ve had to call the police for assistance. One such instance was on a freezing cold February morning. Matthew had on neither a coat nor shoes. He was found playing with a dog two blocks away from my home by a loving and supportive neighbor. I live on the north side of Harrison Street. Should I move to the south side of the street, my family would be in Sarpy County. Harrison Street is a main thoroughfare, and a very busy one at that. Thankfully Matthew chose not to walk south but headed west instead that day. 

One important statement I made during the meeting was that, should my son run off and perish, I would still want his body for burial purposes. Project Lifesaver would at least allow for a proper funeral. I shiver at the thought of losing my precious boy when such an event could possibly be avoided should Sheriff Dunning and his staff cooperating with a well-known, gold standard system that is already in place throughout the United States and several other companies.