- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Virginia State Police would create a program similar to the Amber Alert system to find seniors who wander away from home if legislation making its way through the General Assembly becomes law.

The so-called Senior Alert system would apply only to those 60 or older with a cognitive impairment such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s not just Grandpa that’s having a little bit too much fun fishing and may be out there and stay a little bit later,” Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell said at a press conference yesterday with legislators, law-enforcement officials and members of AARP Virginia and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Bills sponsored by Delegate Allen W. Dudley, Franklin Republican, and Sen. Nick Rerras, Norfolk Republican, unanimously passed the House of Delegates and the Senate. Each chamber must approve the other’s bill and send the legislation to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine before the program could take effect July 1.

The bills require all law-enforcement agencies to accept a missing persons report and begin acting on it within two hours after a person who meets the criteria wanders off. Policies across the state now differ in the amount of time someone must be missing before a report can be filed.

“When an old person wanders off and becomes disoriented, we can’t wait until we check New Jersey and everywhere in the country to see if they might have gone off somewhere. We need immediate action,” said Mr. Dudley, one of the sponsors of the original Amber Alert program.

Virginia State Police would be in charge of developing the program, much like the Amber Alert system for missing children that coordinates responses with law-enforcement agencies, the state police, the news media and others.

Amber Alerts trigger a statewide and sometimes multistate effort to find a child, but the Senior Alert would be more locally focused because most seniors are found within a few miles. The alert could be broadened if deemed necessary.

Localities could choose whether to participate in the Senior Alert program, but Mr. McDonnell said he expected all would join because they are the first responders when it comes to finding missing seniors.

While there are no statewide statistics on the number of seniors who stray from home, Lt. Col. Robert “Bobby” Northern said it seems like it happens “just about every week somewhere across the state.”

Supporters say it could become even more common as the baby boomers continue to age. By 2020, 1.4 million Virginians will be 65 or older, said Bill Kallio, director of AARP Virginia.

Mr. Kallio and others stressed that the program was needed to give caretakers and family members some peace of mind and also to save lives.

“The first 24 hours is really that golden period when you have great hope of a good outcome,” Mr. McDonnell said. “After that, it gets tougher.”

The House unanimously passed the Senate version out of committee Wednesday after few technical changes. The Senate version is expected to be heard by a House committee this morning.

Indoor smoking

A legislative subcommittee delayed action yesterday on a bill to ban smoking in most indoor public places and suggested the sponsor try to work out a compromise with a lawmaker pushing a more modest smoking measure.

Sen. J. Brandon Bell II said he was pleased that the House General Laws subcommittee did not kill his bill outright for a second consecutive year. But he questioned whether he and House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith can find common ground in legislative session’s hectic final two weeks. The session is scheduled to adjourn Feb. 24.

“We’ll huddle. We’ll have some conversations. With the timing, it will be difficult,” Mr. Bell, Roanoke County Republican, told reporters. “We may not be able to get there this year.”

Mr. Bell’s bill would prohibit smoking in restaurants and most other indoor spaces accessible to the public. He thinks the measure is necessary to protect Virginians from the health hazards of secondhand smoke.

Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican, has proposed requiring restaurants that allow smoking to post a “Smoking Permitted” sign at the entrance. Those restaurants would no longer be legally required to have a nonsmoking section, although they could do so voluntarily.

“It’s taking off regulations that are already there,” Mr. Bell told the subcommittee, adding that the bill also does not protect people who have little choice but to work in the smoking establishments.

Mr. Griffith has said he thinks his bill would nudge most restaurateurs to go smoke-free within a couple of years because they wouldn’t like the idea of putting the sign on their door.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, suggested Mr. Bell and Mr. Griffith could get together and “come up with something everybody hates a little.”



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