New drone allows Franklin County deputies to track missing people

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Whether it is a natural disaster or a loved one with disabilities who has disappeared, a local law enforcement agency has a new lifesaving device to help.

NBC4 shows you this first-of-its-kind tool in Central Ohio.

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is one of only four law enforcement agencies in the nation with a life-saving drone or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

Their specialized UAS uses a directional antenna attached to the underside of the craft to quickly pinpoint missing people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia, down syndrome or autism.

Jamal Williams’ eight-year-old son is one of 42 people so far in Franklin County wearing a beacon wristband. The device is worn all the time and constantly transmits on a dedicated frequency. Every six months it is tested and the batteries are changed if necessary.

Williams’ son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was two years old. He got the wristband through the national organization Project Lifesaver in 2011.

“When he is not with us this wristband makes us feel very, very secure,” Williams said. He keeps the emergency telephone number and frequency taped to his refrigerator. “My son goes to a school a long way from home and with sudden noises or issues he can bolt,” said Williams.

Six Franklin County deputies and most of the command staff are trained to quickly set up and deploy the drone, while other trained deputies guided by the drone, use a handheld receiver to find and rescue the missing person. The drone and beacon can be used in almost all weather conditions.

“The Project Lifesaver transmitter we put on people they’ve tested them in the water and five to eight feet down we can still get a signal,” Sgt. Sam Byrd, is trained to fly the drone and is an instructor with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. The Lockheed Martin built UAS is distributed and maintained exclusively by Sentera. Chris Gibson said Franklin County is the only law enforcement agency in Ohio to deploy this UAS. He said it will fly in weather where 99.9 percent of all drone and some helicopters would be grounded.

Project Lifesaver instructors like Gary Reynolds trains personnel and makes sure missing person searches are standardized around the country and internationally.

“We found in Virginia, where this started 17 year ago, that when we had missing persons ,if they were gone more than 24 hours, 50 percent of the time when we did locate them they were deceased,” Reynolds said.

He said, the information gathered on people with disabilities, including their wristband frequencies can be taken by their caregivers to other states and given to local law enforcement if the family is traveling. That way if they go missing law enforcement agencies can use a drone or handheld device to help find them.

Regardless the missing person’s disabilities, officials said finding them is time-sensitive.

“He is on the spectrum, he can’t tell you or always know where he lives or what is his name,” Williams said.

This lifesaving program is growing, but there is a waiting list as the need is outgrowing the number of available beacon wristbands.

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