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
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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