New program helps find missing, vulnerable people

Smitty, wearing an EmSeeQ device is "found" by Pierce County Sheriff's Department personnel.
Grant "Smitty" Smith who portrayed an Alzheimer's patient in a recent practice chats with Shanna Hudson and Tommie Nicodemus of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department after being "found".

Grant “Smitty” Smith walked away from his group Jan. 12 while they shopped at the Tacoma Mall.  Smitty, a 74-year old, balding, adult, white male was described as having Alzheimer’s Disease and missing from the group for possibly as long as 30 minutes.  The outside temperatures hovered in the mid-30s.  Luckily for Smitty, being lost was an exercise to demonstrate a new piece of equipment that might mean the difference between life and death for individuals with Alzheimer’s, Autism, brain injury or other cognitive difficulties.

While a 911 operator took the call and passed the information on to Pierce County Search and Rescue and Sheriff’s department personnel, an EmSeeQ, a watch-sized tracking device Smitty wore on his wrist was activated and three cell towers in Tacoma triangulated Smitty’s location.  With a 30-minute head start, Smitty took a bus from the transit center at the Tacoma Mall and headed towards Tacoma Community College (TCC).  Tommie Nicodemus with Pierce County Search and Rescue and Shanna Hudson with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department were surprised to find that the individual they thought would be on foot was moving rapidly towards Fircrest.  Smitty meanwhile had gotten cold and hungry and walked into a McDonald’s.  After buying a Big Mac, Smitty was off towards the transit center at TCC.  By then Nicodemus and Hudson were able to deduce where he was headed and contacted Pierce Transit to hold their buses for two minutes until they arrived.  Approximately 30 minutes after the initial phone call was made, Smitty, a volunteer with Search and Rescue was “safe”.

In a world filled with the threat of exposure, drowning, or accidents, the ability to quickly recover an individual may be the difference between a scare and a horror.  Sgt Trent Stephens, a supervisor with Pierce County Sheriff’s Department who has been involved with Search and Rescue for 10 years and an advocate for EmFinders for years said that some of the most vulnerable people cannot help themselves.  Concern for those individuals has led to a collaborative effort between several local agencies in Pierce County to support a system called EmFinders.  Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor defined Search and Rescue as involving “uncertainty and danger.”  EmFinders reduces that uncertainty and danger, he added.

EmFinders utilizes cellular technology rather than GPS.  The benefit of cellular over GPS is that GPS does not work inside buildings or heavily wooded areas as it needs a clear line of sight said Harry Smeenk, EmFinders vice president.  EmSeeQ is basically a cell phone, which, when activated calls 911 and then gives longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates to within 50 feet to 911 operators utilizing all available cell towers regardless of their vendor.  Those operators are then able to tell police and fire department personnel local street locations.  EmFinders has successfully rescued 98 individuals with an average time of 17 minutes.  To protect individual’s privacy, EmSeeQ is not activated until an emergency is reported.

Project LOCATE is a program of PAVE that began this month.  PAVE, a nonprofit organization that supports families with loved ones with disabilities will sell the device and provide training to parents, professionals and community members to increase support for the device.  Paula McCullough, a parent advocate and PAVE volunteer championed the need for EmFinder in Pierce County to locate loved ones prone to wandering.  McCullough said that autistic children like her son Tanner are especially prone to bolting and hopes other families follow suit with acquiring one of the devices.  “Taking Tanner out in public is scary to say the least,” she said.   “We probably hear of our elderly wandering more often than our disabled children.  I’m really excited to see it used in that arena as well,” she said.  “Older individuals have the additional problem with being frail,” she added.

Through funding provided by Pierce County Community Connections, scholarships for some devices are available.  ARC of Washington also presented PAVE with a check for $500 for additional scholarships.  To be eligible for a scholarship, individuals must be a Pierce County resident, be currently eligible for services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities and can prove financial need.

Private citizens can contact PAVE but Paul Calta, a supervisor with Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) recommended that the aging population that already has a case manager should talk to their case manager about the possibility of it being treated by the Community Options Program Entry System (COPES) like that program already treats special beds or Lifeline.  Family caregivers (unpaid caregivers) that aren’t part of the COPES program can still check out the website at for information on the price of the device and EmFinders Service Plan.

If you would like to make a donation to the program, you can do so by phone at (253) 565-2266 or contact them at PAVE, Attn: Project LOCATE, 6316 South 12thSt, Tacoma, WA 98465.