Investigators: Tracking system for vulnerable people has dispatch delays

There are questions about a tracking system that's supposed to help find vulnerable people who've gone missing.  Some metro families who rely on Project Lifesaver are raising concerns about how their calls for help are being handled. 

Kadin Okerstrom is oblivious to the panic that ensues whenever he gets an urge to take off and run. He suffers from severe autism.  He doesn't know traffic is dangerous or how to ask for help if he gets lost. 

In 2008, Keith Kennedy, another young man with autism, went missing in the woods for a week.  The Kennedy case highlighted the need for a better way to find vulnerable people who wander off before they can get hurt or die.

Then along came Project Lifesaver. With the program, families like the Okerstroms pay a monthly fee for a loved one to wear a bracelet with a radio transmitter.  It helps emergency responders get a fix on someone's location who has left their home.

But now there's worry that a system that's supposed to give families peace of mind is being hindered by a communications bottleneck.

Excerpt from 911 Call from Kadin's mother, Marjorie: 

Dispatch: "What race is he?

Kadin's mother: "He's white. You should have all this in that folder. You guys have all this information on him. He's in Project Lifesaver."

The protocol calls for police and the fire department to be dispatched in cases like these.

The last time Marjorie Okerstrom called 911 it took 5 minutes before St. Paul police were notified by dispatch that a Project Lifesaver child was missing.  It was another 8 minutes before the fire department got word to grab their tracking equipment to assist.

"I just want to pull my hair out because I just don't know what to do," said Okerstrom when recalling what it was like to talk to dispatchers.  "I feel like there is so much time being wasted."

Search experts say every second counts. The radio signal from the tracking bracelet only carries for about a mile. It's important to get to the missing person's last known location as fast as possible before they wander out of range.

Several project lifesaver insiders tell the Fox 9 Investigators that confusion within Ramsey County's 911 dispatch center is slowing down response times.

On three occasions this year, searchers who have tracking equipment were not alerted to respond to a Project Lifesaver call.

The Director of the Communications Center says he reviewed those cases and believes his staff handled them appropriately. Each missing individual was found safe.

But families and even some people who work in the system, tell Fox 9 that dispatchers are taking too long to get resources rolling. According to insiders, things would move much faster if the 911 center kept information about each Project Lifesaver client in its computer system.  That way, crucial details about the missing person's appearance and the frequency of their tracking device would automatically show up on screen when a call comes in from that address.

In theory, it would shorten the time it takes dispatchers to gather and relay critical information to get the tracking equipment deployed and a search underway.

"This has not been raised to us from our agencies. We're always open to doing things better and faster and open to new and better ways of doing things," said Scott Williams of Ramsey County Emergency Communications.

Marjorie Okerstrom, and other families who rely on the program, hope changes will happen soon.

Despite concerns about dispatch delays, everyone agrees Project Lifesaver is an important tool. Police and fire officials say it really cuts down on searching time.  They strongly encourage any family who has a loved one with autism, dementia, or similar disability to enroll in the program.

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