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HHH teams up with first responders in Project Lifesaver

As part of its mission to promote an autism-friendly community, the Hormel Historic Home and Autism Friendly Austin have teamed up with the Mower County Sheriff’s Office, Austin Police Department and Austin Fire Department to be a part of Project Lifesaver.

“It’s an international program started by law enforcement to be able to track people that have a tendency to wander or elope from a location and put themselves in danger,” said Community Autism Resource Specialist Mary Barinka. “The reason we’re pursuing this safety measure for our community is because it fits right in with our mission of serving the autism community.”

According to Barinka, up to 50 percent of people with autism will wander around or elope from a safe situation at some point in their life. This is most common with non-verbal individuals, who may be wanting something or trying to avoid a situation, but are unable to communicate that.

“Once they’re gone, they’re difficult to find,” Barinka said. “The number one reason for death of people with autism that wander is drowning, so the faster you’re able to find them, the better.”

Project Lifesaver involves training first responders in the use of wristbands worn on clients that help track them by utilizing radio frequencies. The Hormel Historic Home will purchase equipment for first responders using funds from the Hormel Foundation.

“The Hormel Historic Home is proud to be the launch pad for things such as this,” said HHH Executive Director Holly Johnson. “With autism as a primary mission area for us, we’re just proud to do something like this for the community with funding from the Hormel Foundation.”

Johnson said the need for the program was brought to the HHH’s attention from parents of wandering children.

“We’ve had two or three different parents say, ‘I can’t keep track of my child’ and ‘he wanders and it’s not safe,’” she said. “We’ve had families with kids who have been missing for hours, so we feel like this will be a safety precaution that gives parents security and peace.”

Under the program, several members of the Mower County Sheriff’s Office and Austin Police and Fire Departments will be trained to be a part of Project Lifesaver with re-certification every two years. Johnson said Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik, Austin Police Chief David McKichan and Austin Fire Chief Jim McCoy did not hesitate when asked to be a part of the program.

“The fire department is honored to be asked to be part of Project Lifesaver,” McCoy said. “We are always here to help the citizens we protect, but when it involves one of our most vulnerable, there is an increased sense of urgency. Time is important and we need to get responders dispatched immediately so we can locate the missing person and getting them home safely.”

“In Austin, we do handle around 80 missing persons calls per year,” McKichan said. “Some will involve people with diminished capacity who are not able to recognize or seek help once away from their home and caregivers. The Hormel Historic Home and Autism Friendly Austin have identified this resource as being needed by some families in our community. We are happy to partner with them as it will help quickly locate lost family members before any harm might befall them.”

The Austin City Council unanimously approved the City’s membership in Project Lifesaver during its regular meeting on Sept. 21.

Barinka said participation in the program will benefit the community as a whole.

“A lot of our programming originates to help the autism population, but benefit our community at large, especially something like this because there are more populations and disabilities that wander beside autism,” she said.