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Investigator locates boy in 14 minutes in mock training drill

It was a mock training drill. The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office was called Thursday to locate an autistic 7-year-old boy, who went missing in an area near South Sixth Street in Brainerd. Sgt. Chad Paulson set up the perimeter of a 2-square-mi...

Sgt. Jon Vukelich of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office checks the signal of "Project Lifesaver" locator equipment during an exercise Thursday. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Sgt. Jon Vukelich of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office checks the signal of "Project Lifesaver" locator equipment during an exercise Thursday. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

It was a mock training drill.

The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office was called Thursday to locate an autistic 7-year-old boy, who went missing in an area near South Sixth Street in Brainerd.

Sgt. Chad Paulson set up the perimeter of a 2-square-mile area of where the boy could be. The perimeter was between South Sixth Street, Wright Street, 13th Street Southeast and Thiesse Road. Once the perimeter was set, Sgt. Jon Vukelich, deputy Todd Holk and investigator Ian Wilson got into position, equipped with the county's Project Lifesaver devices.

Last year the sheriff's office received a $5,000 federal grant and used it to purchase two tracking devices through Project Lifesaver.

Project Lifesaver, an international nonprofit organization, provides police, fire/rescue and other first responders with a comprehensive program including equipment and training to quickly locate and rescue at-risk individuals with cognitive disorders who are at constant risk from the life-threatening behavior of wandering, including those with Alzheimer's disease, Autism and Down syndrome.

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Citizens enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small personal transmitter around the wrist or ankle that emits an individualized tracking signal. If an enrolled client goes missing, the caregiver notifies their local Project Lifesaver agency, and a trained emergency team responds to the wanderer's area.

In the training, Wilson took one route and Vukelich and Holk partnered up and took another route. The authorities, both in their squads, were told the boy had been missing for 10 minutes. The search was on. Within five minutes, Wilson's transmitter picked up a signal and started beeping, an indicator he was getting close. Wilson was on South 10th Street and Wright Street and the other team was on South Seventh Street and Madison Street.

Wilson got out of his vehicle on South Seventh Street when the signal got stronger. He followed the signal and then found the boy, 14 minutes after the call was made. The other team was close and came from the other direction to the wooded area near Good Samaritan Society-Bethany.

Paulson, who helped write the grant to get the Project Lifesaver equipment, said the sheriff's office has not yet used the equipment in a real life scenario. However, just recently the sheriff's office has had two inquiries. A family who lives in Rochester, vacation in the Longville area during the summer and the mother has the Project Lifesaver transmitter device. Another Brainerd family has inquired about purchasing the device for their 5-year-old.

Paulson wants to get the word out so more people purchase the transmitter device. Then, if they get lost, the sheriff's office is equipped to be able to find them and bring them home safely. Paulson said the devices will help emergency responders find clients more quickly, before anything bad happens. Most who wander are found within a few miles of home, and search times have been reduced from hours and days to minutes, Paulson said. Recovery times for Project Lifesaver clients average 30 minutes, 95 percent less time than standard operations.

Current statistics from the Project Lifesaver website report one in 68 children are autistic and 50 percent of families with an autistic child have had them wander. More than five million adults with Alzheimer's, or roughly 60 percent, will wander at some point. The program currently has 1,400 agencies enrolled from 48 states in the United States and six provinces in Canada and Australia.

During the training, Wilson said he learned it would be beneficial to work in a group of two, instead of on his own. He said it was difficult to handle the transmitter device and try to listen to the signal, while driving at the same time.

Vukelich was having issues with his device. He said it may have had a bad connection and wasn't working properly.

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Paulson said the nice thing with Project Lifesaver is it is international. Meaning it doesn't matter where the person goes missing, authorities who have the equipment would be able to locate the person.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl .

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