When loved ones go missing, don’t count on technology to save them

Tom Jackman is a Local reporter for The Washington Post. This article is adapted from a post on his State of NoVa blog: washingtonpost.com/stateofnova.

On a recent Saturday morning, a 78-year-old Reston man drove to the closest Starbucks for his daily cup of black coffee. When he didn’t return after two hours, his wife knew that something was wrong. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was allowed to drive only to the nearby coffee shop every morning and to church on Sundays. This was the first time he had had a problem.

What followed over the next 20 hours was a learning experience for the man’s family and friends, and is instructive for anyone with a family member in mental decline.

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The first lesson: Don’t count on technology to save the day.

The man’s wife called the police after he had been missing for three hours and wouldn’t answer his cellphone. The Fairfax County Police launched an all-out search involving more than 60 officers, members of the fire department, the police helicopter, the police bloodhound, the police bike team and a fire department boat in Lake Anne. A large command post was established at Lake Anne Elementary School. Cruisers with license-plate readers were deployed. Everywhere you turned in Reston, there was an officer on foot, parked at an intersection or driving through cul de sacs and parking lots.

The family was surprised that the police swung into action so quickly and extensively, but this was a pretty standard response to signs that a person is in imminent danger. “In 2012, we responded to 107 ‘critical missing person’ or ‘critical missing adult’ calls,” Fairfax police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings told me, and this year the total is 165 such calls.

Searching the incident reports for mentions of Alzheimer’s, Jennings said, revealed that there were 23 cases in 2012 and 17 this year. And many reports may not show a dementia-related cause without a formal diagnosis or if the family did not disclose the condition. Most of those cases required some or all of the search resources summoned in the Reston case, Jennings said.

The first patrol officer who responded to the Reston call stayed at the family’s home for 10 hours. He contacted the missing man’s bank, as did the man’s wife, to see if or where his debit card was being used. They got nothing.

Detectives involved in the search said that was unsurprising. The man did not have an online account set up that his wife could check. But even if he did, the bank told her the following Monday, the addresses of where he used the card would not be available.

Debit and credit cards “are not designed to track people’s whereabouts,” said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president for consumer protection and payments at the American Bankers Association. “They’re designed to facilitate financial transactions.”

Transactions on weekends are even trickier because banks and many other businesses use that time to upgrade or reset their computer networks, making customers’ new information inaccessible. And some smaller banks, such as the one the missing man uses, outsource their weekend work to third-party companies that can’t access that information, Feddis said.

But an online account would have provided at least some information about the card’s use — sometimes almost instantly, sometimes with a delay, depending on the bank and the place the card was used. (Anyone with a loved one in such a situation would be well-advised to sign up now.)

Since the man had taken his cellphone with him, police tried to use cellphone-locator technology to find him. But that technology is not foolproof. The man’s phone company reported to police that his older-style flip phone was pinging near the south side of Lake Anne, based on the phone’s location relative to nearby cell towers. Officers and the search dog swarmed the area. The phone was never found and clearly wasn’t with its owner.

Cellphone tracking is “a wonderful technology, but it’s not always accurate,” said John B. Minor, a communications expert. Signals between nearby cell towers can pinpoint a phone sometimes within five meters or sometimes within 10,000 meters, he said, depending on the sensitivity of the phone, the weather, the network usage or sometimes just a computer’s miscalculation. Also, Minor noted, 911 centers convert the data from global positioning coordinates to street addresses, which sometimes don’t translate to a precise location.

So in an age when we expect all personal data to be instantly accessible, the Reston man’s phone and bank records could not help the search. A more modern cellphone, or one with GPS capability, is easier to locate in such situations.

As the search went deep into the night, Fairfax police Capt. Ron Novak briefed a new set of troops at the command post. He reminded them, and the man’s family, that the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office runs a Project Lifesaver program; participants wear a wrist or ankle band that emits a signal and can be promptly tracked down. This would have saved much time and angst all around.

But in Fairfax there is a 10-month wait to get into Project Lifesaver, Lt. Steve Elbert of the sheriff’s office said, because of limited funding. Project Lifesaver, which is available in nearly every jurisdiction in the Washington region, says the average recovery time for a missing person is about 30 minutes.

There is a relatively happy ending here. The Reston man was found, but only after he’d taken a wild voyage.

According to debit card receipts he kept in his car, the man had driven without his cellphone to Baltimore, where he once saw many Orioles games and where his brother lives. During three stops on opposite sides of the city Saturday night, he got gas, twice, and a quarter-pounder with cheese.

Then he drove down to Washington, got a Coke from a McDonald’s on New York Avenue and was found there by D.C. police around 7:30 a.m. Sunday after the car ran out of gas. He does not remember going to Baltimore. He was checked out at Howard University Hospital, where a nurse told him to frame his driver’s license and a doctor found he was in fine physical shape.

He will no longer drive, and his family is trying to get him into Project Lifesaver. Meanwhile, another Fairfax County man disappeared the following Saturday. And the public-safety-technology complex swung into action again.

I should mention: The missing Reston man is my dad.

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