The Rescuers
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The Rescuers

With help from CLAC's Building Communities program, search and rescue groups in northern Ontario now have a powerful new tool to help them find vulnerable persons who have wandered off—before it's too late

By Lisa Helder

THE BLACKFLIES FEAST ON YOUR neck as you blunder your way through thick, scratchy pine brush. You feel the urgent need to find someone, to go somewhere, but you aren’t sure who or what you are looking for. In fact, you can’t even remember your own name.

The air is heavy with the smell of decaying pine needles and moss, and your feet slip into the heavy black muskeg. The only sound you hear is the incessant buzzing of insects and the occasional cry of ravens.

You’re suffering from the ravages of dementia, and you’re all alone—lost deep in the woods of northern Ontario.

As caregivers know all too well, persons suffering from dementia or other cognitive challenges can be prone to wandering. In the wilds of northern Ontario—with its sudden cliffs, thick brush, deep bogs, and plunging temperatures—such wanderings often end quickly and tragically.

But thanks to the efforts of one CLAC member and his fellow volunteer rescuers, a new program—Project Lifesaver—has been recently implemented in the region. It gives them a new tool to help find those who have wandered off—and prevent just such a tragic scenario from happening.

LOCAL 920 MEMBER EMILIO CECCHETTO is a volunteer firefighter in Sudbury, Ontario. He also volunteers for North Shore Search and Rescue (NSSAR), a volunteer-run search and rescue organization in northern Ontario, with teams based in Sudbury, Espanola, Elliot Lake, and Manitoulin Island.

NSSAR spearheaded the move to bring Project Lifesaver to help rescuers more easily and quickly find those who inadvertently wander off in the remote region. The program, which originated in the US, places wristbands with transmitters on individuals prone to wandering due to cognitive impairments such as dementia or developmental delays such as autism.

In the US, the program has been an overwhelming success. So far, rescuers have found every single person who has wandered off while wearing the transmitter.

With a search area that covers some 26,000 square kilometres of rugged, sparsely populated woodlands—spreading from north of Sudbury, south to Parry Sound, west to Blind River, and east to West Nipissing—Emilio and his fellow volunteers with NSSAR knew that Project Lifesaver’s technology would be indispensable in helping them find persons who had wandered off and hopefully save their lives.

“When someone goes missing out here, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Emilio, who has been a member of NSSAR’s Sudbury unit for five years. “The survival rate falls drastically after 24 hours when someone has wandered off.”

NSSAR first launched its bid to bring Project Lifesaver to the area in 2015. But the technology is very expensive—$1,470 USD per receiver unit and $300-350 per transmitter.

For a volunteer-run organization that raises all of its own funds, that meant a lot of extra fundraising.

Emilio remembered that CLAC provides donations to local community-based causes through the union’s Building Communities program, which selects winners twice per year (in June and December) from qualified nominations submitted by members. (Winners and the amounts are selected by random draw.)

Emilio nominated Project Lifesaver for the June 2016 draw, and the cause won and received $1,500.

“The grant from CLAC was the initial money that we received,” says Emilio. “It started the ball rolling. After that, we were able to get donations from Lions' clubs in the area.”

By December 2017, the team had purchased four receiver units—two in Sudbury and two in Espanola—and trained a number of volunteers on how to use them. They also received the good news that the Sudbury police would also be joining the program—allowing the two teams to work together to provide even more coverage and support in the area.

So how does the technology work? “It’s basically like radio frequency technology—old, but very reliable compared to cellphones’ GPS,” says Emilio.

This is especially important in northern Ontario, where cell coverage can be spotty. Plus, the GPS satellites that are able to cover the area may not be pointed to where you need them, when you need them.

With the Project Lifesaver technology, clients are given a transmitter the size of a watch that has a specific frequency for each client. Their information is entered into a database so that if they go missing while in the jurisdiction of a sister organization, that organization can also access that frequency to help locate the person.

Project Lifesaver’s technology is not meant to help everyone who wanders off. It can’t help those who don’t want to be found.

“Project Lifesaver is for people who wander off but aren’t aware of the consequences of their actions,” says Emilio. “They will keep the wristband on, whereas a troubled teen will cut the device off. So it’s not meant for people who have all their faculties.”

With the help of the technology, search and rescue groups can quickly respond to and locate someone who has wandered off. As soon as a client goes missing, his or her caregiver calls the police and NSSAR to tell the team when and where they were last seen.

“When we begin the search, we stand with the receiver and do a 360-degree circle listening for a ping,” says Emilio. “The receivers can pick up a signal from a wristband that is up to eight kilometres away. If we don’t get a ping, then we can go mobile, and we work out in a spiral until we get a signal. And then we can go on foot or in a vehicle to find them. The louder the ping, the closer we’re getting.”

THE ODDS OF FINDING SOMEONE alive after 24 hours searching through the vast stretches of northern Ontario’s rough terrain without the aid of Project Lifesaver’s technology are very small. In the US, with Project Lifesaver, rescuers average time from when they receive a call to when they find a client is between 30 and 45 minutes.

“This is especially vital in northern Ontario, where exposure is a danger, even in the summer,” says Emilio. “I can tell you, from searches that I’ve been involved in, without some sort of technology, searches can last for days. At a certain point, they become recovery operations.”

Families who sign up for a transmitter pay $20 per month to maintain it, but the upfront cost is covered by NSSAR, or the Sudbury police if the client is within the greater Sudbury area. Every 60 days, a volunteer cleans and checks the unit and installs a new band and battery. As of December 2017, NSSAR had three clients signed up—all suffering from dementia. Thankfully, they have not yet had to try out the technology and implemented a search.

“I was changing the battery for a client in November 2017,” says Emilio. “While I was there, I noticed his wife had taken the doorknob off on the inside, and she had installed an extra lock on the door. So he seems to be getting worse.”

While caregivers do everything they can to prevent their loved ones from wandering, until the Project Lifesaver program came into being, they had the constant worry of what would happen if the person they’re caring for still managed to wander off.

“I’ve already seen the peace of mind that Project Lifesaver affords caregivers,” says Emilio. “They are relieved to know that if their loved one does go missing, we now have a much faster way of finding them.”

Project Lifesaver not only ensures that clients don’t wander alone for hours—lost, confused, and scared. It ensures that their caregivers and families don’t have to worry that their loved ones have wandered off for good—with little chance of rescue—in northern Ontario’s vast wilderness.

The Search and Rescue Operation

How to Find a Missing Person

Members of North Shore Search and Rescue (NSSAR) conduct both rural and urban searches, which are very different from each other.

“When we’re in a populated area, we’re knocking on doors asking people if they would mind if we searched their yard,” says Emilio Cecchetto, NSSAR volunteer. “It’s a little more painstaking because you’re looking in outbuildings, under decks, behind wood piles, and sheds, but it’s a little easier than searching through the bush.

“Some of the bush up here is so thick you have to fight your way through. We walk side by side with our team members, walking in a straight line, and it’s very labour intensive. We aren’t really looking for the person—we’re looking for evidence that the person was there—footprints, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, that sort of thing.

“The problem with a lot of the searches is that we’re looking for people who do not want to be found. They’ve wandered off because of a family dispute, a mental health issue, or some other problem.”

Bittersweet Ending

This past August in the Hanmer area of Sudbury, we were called out to search for a fellow who had gone missing for the second time that summer—he was going through some mental health struggles. The first time, the police had been able to track him through his cellphone to a wooded area near his home. This time, he didn’t take his cellphone, so we started searching through the area where he had previously been found.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find him there, so we expanded our search. We were very close to a recreational complex on the third day of our search. We began checking the area north of the soccer and baseball fields. We were just getting ready to do a line search through a thick area when one of our searchers did his 360-degree look around, and he found the man. He’d taken some medication and been deceased for quite a while.

You never like to have that result, but at least the family has closure. We’ve had incidents where we couldn’t find any trace of the person, and there are families out there who do not know what’s happened to their loved one. So even though this wasn’t the result that we like to have, at least it gives closure.

—Emilio Cecchetto, Local 920 member and NSSAR volunteer

Serving the Community

North Shore Search and Rescue (NSSAR) is a group of 100 volunteers who are split into four units in Sudbury, Espanola, Elliot Lake, and Manitoulin Island, Ontario. They are trained as ground searchers and assist police in finding lost persons or in finding evidence. They have search agreements with all the police departments in their 26,000-square-kilometre operations area—the Sudbury city police, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the various Aboriginal police forces—and only initiate a search when called on by law enforcement officials, unless the search is part of Project Lifesaver.

Members must have up-to-date first-aid training (which NSSAR provides) and must go through annual training and recertification on basic ground search techniques. Several members of each unit have additional training. Some are trackers, meaning they have received additional, specialized training to be able to find, identify, and follow footprints or clues left behind by a missing person. Others are certified as instructors and can provide first-aid, Project Lifesaver, and other training. Each unit meets twice per month to go over different techniques and tracking methods.

Members not only volunteer their time to search and rescue, they also assist with community events, such as fall fairs, marathons, mountain bike races, cancer runs, and more. As a nonprofit group, NSSAR raises all of its own funds to cover the cost of insurance and equipment.

“We have in excess of $12,000-$15,000 in insurance costs annually for liability, as well as all of our equipment,” says Emilio Cecchetto, NSSAR volunteer. “We have a three-quarter ton pickup truck, several ATVs and snowmobiles, and trailers to haul them. Domtar was nice enough to donate a building and yard in Espanola that we use to store most of our equipment, but we’re still responsible for the utilities.”

Fundraising activities include an annual Canada Day rubber duck race on the Spanish River and voluntary road tolls at shopping malls.

What Happens if GPS Fails?

We’ve heard stories of people ending up lost or even in peril because of GPS failures—whether because of user error or out-of-date maps. The GPS signals coming from the 24 satellites orbiting 12,000 miles above the earth are so weak—they’re likened to reading by the light of one bulb thousands of miles away—that they’re easily disrupted.

According to The Atlantic, “Truckers with cheap jamming devices designed to elude employer tracking have unintentionally interfered with airport systems; criminals thwarting GPS tags on stolen goods in shipping containers have accidentally shut down port operations. On a grander scale, North Korea has tormented South Korea with waves of jamming attacks.”

GPS, developed and run by the US government, has a global economic value measured in the trillions of dollars. With so much riding on a very vulnerable system, having a backup would be prudent. Unfortunately, there isn’t one.

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