The Twin Cities' Three Rivers Park District is testing tracking devices to help track and locate visitors who are at risk of wandering away, hoping that these GPS watches will encourage families with vulnerable loved ones to use the parks.
Police Chief Hugo McPhee told WCCO that some people who have family members that are prone to wandering due to autism, Alzheimer's disease or dementia are "more reluctant to come to the parks for fear of losing a loved one, or having them go wander, and get into dangerous situations."
To help keep track of a loved one, or locate one who has gone missing, the park district has rented four of Project Lifesaver's PAL (protect and locate) GPS devices that can be used at any of the 26 Three Rivers parks free of charge.
"With this tool, a vulnerable individual will be able to go camping and enjoy an outing with family, but at the same time the family can have peace of mind that their loved one won’t wander off," McPhee told the Star Tribune.
The vulnerable person just wears a GPS watch, while the caregiver has a monitoring device. If the person wearing the watch steps out of a set perimeter, an alarm goes off to alert the caregiver and sends the wanderer's location to the monitoring device so they can be found as quickly as possible, according to the Project Lifesaver website.
“Many [parents who have children with autism] don’t go to the park for fear that if they look away for three seconds, their child might be gone,” Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune.
He called the tracking devices a "wonderful tool" for families.
McPhee hopes that providing these tracking devices will help give parents peace of mind and encourage them to visit the parks, noting that finding a person who wandered could just take minutes instead of "hours and hours like the old way," WCCO notes.
Last year, there were 57 reports of missing persons at Three Rivers parks, many involving young children, the Star Tribune reports. In these incidents, each case was resolved quickly and with a good outcome, but that's not always the case.
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of children with autism who have wandered away from their caregivers, and in some cases, they didn't return.
It's not uncommon for children with autism to wander. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says half of all children with autism will wander away or "elope." Of those, many will be found dead, ABC News reports.
Three Rivers has a one-year lease on the tracking devices, but McPhee told the Star Tribune he's confident they'll be made available to park visitors in the future.
The devices are also available to be purchased for personal use. For more information on the PAL device, click here.
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