Keeping tabs on the vulnerable

MACHIAS — Ray Baron Sr. watched dementia play cruel tricks on his mother.

She didn’t always recognize her son, mistaking him for an uncle or cousin. The past was more often her reality than the present. Baron saw first-hand how the disease can steal people away.

Randy Fay has spent years looking for the lost. Many, often living with dementia, left their homes and didn’t remember how to get back. Some never found their way.

Baron and Fay are longtime volunteers. Baron, 75, of Marysville jokes that he works more hours now as the lead volunteer for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office than he did working full-time as an electrical engineer. He’s been volunteering for a decade.

Fay, 60, of Clearview, has been a member of the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue since 1999. His day job is with the county’s Department of Emergency Management, where works as the homeland security program manager. He also is a fire commissioner for Snohomish County Fire District 7.

Both men are dedicated to a program that brings the lost home and back to their families. The program, Project Care Track, provides traceable bracelets to people who are prone to wander.

“This is not a babysitting service,” Baron said. “The system is designed for people with memory issues.”

The bracelets are outfitted with transmitters that send out unique frequencies that can be tracked by search-and-rescue teams equipped with receivers that pick up the signals. The receiver beeps louder the closer it gets to the bracelet, Baron said.

The signal can lead searchers to a lost person within minutes, not hours. That can mean the difference between life and death, Fay said.

Clients often suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Many of the children enrolled in the program are autistic or have Down syndrome. There are several clients living with traumatic brain injuries. The program costs $15 a month. Scholarships are available to those in need.

The sheriff’s office and the nonprofit Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue began looking into the program about dozen years ago after tragic deaths involving Alzheimer’s patients.

“We all took it hard. We started searching for a better way,” Fay said.

Since then they’ve been called out hundreds of times for people enrolled in the program. On average, it takes about an hour to find those wearing the bracelets.

“We have returned everyone home alive,” Fay said.

It also saves on manpower. It generally only takes six searchers to find someone wearing a bracelet, Fay said. The average search time for someone without a bracelet is eight to 12 hours, using up to 60 searchers, including police officers.

When they enroll a loved one, relatives fill out a lengthy questionnaire. The resulting file includes the person’s photograph and other information that can be useful in the search. The background is available immediately to search-and-rescue crews.

For example, families are asked to provide the addresses of previous homes or jobs. It isn’t uncommon for Alzheimer’s patients to go in search of their former homes, believing that’s where they live now.

Fay said the program also gives some peace of mind to often overwhelmed caregivers. Many look forward to the visits from sheriff’s office volunteers, who regularly change the batteries in the bracelets. Some caregivers can feel isolated as their loved one’s disease progresses and the demands increase, Fay said.

Baron, who has been retired since 1992, and a group of sheriff’s volunteers are in charge of enrolling the clients and maintaining the equipment. Baron also keeps careful records to help searchers.

He believes volunteers “are able to help people who can’t help themselves.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

For more information about Project Care Track, or to inquire about volunteer opportunities with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, call 425-388-3082.

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