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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

When someone goes missing, police search and rescue unit steps in

2nd Lt. Richard Theal demonstrates equipment used in search and rescue operations. 
When someone with dementia or autism goes missing, like the time a young man with special needs ran away while his mother was shopping at an Annandale grocery store, the Fairfax County Police Department’s search and rescue team is called in.

The head of the team, 2nd Lt. Richard Theal, described its work at a meeting of the Mason Police District’s Citizen Advisory Committee last week.

Forty officers are assigned to the team, but most search efforts involve 10 officers, Theal said. An “air scent dog,” trained to detect humans, is often called in to join the search party. They focus on missing persons in critical need, not criminals.

Team members, who often have to search wooded areas, are equipped with portable GPS units, a compass for backup, headlamps, a hand-held heat infrared device, and machetes for clearing through underbrush.

The team develops an organized search plan, starting in the area around the point where the missing person was last seen and spreading outward. According to Theal, there’s a 60 percent chance a missing person will be found in the immediate area.

They can knock on doors, but can’t enter a home uninvited without a search warrant. They also rely on social media to alert the public.

Team members are trained in land navigation and the likely behavior patterns of people who are considered suicidal, have Alzheimer’s, or fit the profile of other typical runaways.

People with Alzheimer’s, for example, tend to walk in a straight line and head downhill. When they come to an obstacle, they walk around it. For people with autism, team members talk to the family to see if they have particular behavior patterns, such as being attracted to flashing lights, or if they are most likely to head home.

The man who ran away in Annandale was in his 20s and was autistic and nonverbal, Theal said. His mother left him in the car while she went into the Safeway at Little River Plaza. The team searched inside and under cars in the parking lot, then broadened their search to the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, they sent an officer to the man’s home in Lorton, and that’s where he was eventually found. He had walked all the way from the Annandale.

Households with a someone who repeatedly runs away might want to check out Project Lifesaver, a program operated by the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office. Participants are fitted with monitors, allowing them to be tracked via radio frequency.

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