It's the size of a wrist watch and -- according to families with autistic children or parents with dementia -- it's about time.
Project Lifesaver Manitoba, officially launched Thursday afternoon, is an initiative using radio frequency transmitters embedded in wrist/ankle bands to help locate missing at-risk clients, including those with autism, dementia, Down syndrome or severe head trauma.
"For the clients, it is definitely a game-changer," said Sgt. Randy Antonio, co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Police Service ground search and rescue unit. "Now we're going from having to search door to door to go to probably being able to get a hit (frequency) before we even get to the house if we get a call early enough."
According to Norma Kirkby, program director at the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba, there are 20,000 Manitobans living with dementia. That number is expected to double by 2038, she said.
"It makes a huge difference," Kirkby said of the project. "It does save lives."
Just two weeks ago in Fargo, N.D., an 11-year-old autistic boy drowned in the Red River after wandering from home. The boy was the 13th child with autism to drown in the U.S. since April, according to the American National Autism Association.
"It's just a matter of time before we lose somebody," Antonio said. "We've been very fortunate here, but when you start looking at the States and the numbers there, especially with autism, a lot of fatalities relate to wandering behaviour."
Project Lifesaver will receive $46,000 in funding from the federal Search and Rescue -- New Initiatives Fund, provided to the Search and Rescue Manitoba Volunteer Association.
St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover, now Manitoba's senior minister and a former city police officer, said searches routinely involve hundreds of hours involving police and can cost thousands of dollars. With the transmitters, Glover said, "searches can be reduced from hours and days to minutes."
Celine Weber can relate to the distress and uncertainty of an at-risk family member gone missing. On June 12, her 59-year-old husband Albert, who suffers from dementia, disappeared in St. Vital at 7 p.m. and wasn't located until 3 p.m. the following day.
"Through the night we were walking the riverside, The Forks, the Norwood Flats," Weber said. "Our big concern is that he might have fallen in the river."
Instead, her husband was found in good condition several kilometres away at Arlington Street and Ellice Avenue. He had spent the night sleeping on a homeless man's blanket, Weber said.
But the Webers contend they were lucky. Their father has now been fitted with a transmitter bracelet, which weighs about an ounce and can only be cut off with a knife or scissors once attached. The transmitter has a range of about a half a kilometre.
"We don't know if he's gone east, west, north or south," Weber said, if her husband wanders again. "But we do know that if he is gone in the last 10 minutes (he should easily be located). I know there's so many people out there with the same problem as us who could benefit from this."
Antonio understands. The officer's 13-year-old son, Jeremy, who has Down syndrome, is also wearing a transmitter after years of "bolting" -- in supermarkets, on camping excursions and in other places.
Project Lifesaver is the answer to the needle-in-the-hay-stack dilemma facing search teams.
"With dementia, they're not necessarily standing on the street," Antonio said. "They could be holed up under a deck, in a shed, in a vehicle, behind a tree. We have to search literally on hands and knees sometimes to look for dementia patients. They don't hide like normal people. They squirrel themselves away."
The criteria for obtaining one of the waterproof transmitters, which cost about $300 each, is three-fold: a confirmed diagnosis of dementia, autism, Down syndrome or severe head trauma; under 24-hour care; and a history of wandering that doesn't have to be officially recorded, since 90 per cent of wandering cases are unreported, Antonio said.