- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

RICHMOND — A Virginia organization that developed wristwatch-sized radio transmitters to track Alzheimer’s patients and autistic children wants the National Park Service to use the technology to track forest rangers and lost hikers.

Park Service officials are getting ready to test the equipment, but they say electronic devices often provide a false sense of security. They say such a device couldn’t have prevented a tragedy like the one on Oregon’s Mount Hood last month, in which one hiker was found dead and two went missing after a week of blizzards on the mountain’s treacherous north side.

Project Lifesaver International started providing the transmitters in 1999 to police departments and emergency agencies in and around the city of Chesapeake, Va. Sales have expanded to 530 agencies in 40 states and Canada.

Autistic children and other dependents are outfitted with a wristband or an ankle bracelet that sends out a radio pulse every second, project spokesman Jay Smith said. If the person wanders away from home, a caregiver calls a toll-free number, he said, and searchers are often able to find the missing person within minutes using a tracker.

“We find most people within a mile of their house,” said Officer Mike Catron of Chesterfield County.

Using electronic devices for wilderness search and rescue would save valuable time, as well as public money, said Kathryn Healey-Flores, program development officer at Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit based in Chesapeake.

“The dollars spent on search and rescue can be prohibitive,” she said.

Hikers going into treacherous terrain during winter months could be required to rent the equipment at a trailhead Park Service station. If hikers become lost, or aren’t heard from for several days, searchers could track the radio signals to narrow down a search area.

The Park Service has agreed to experiment with Project Lifesaver’s device, but only for use by forest rangers, said Dan Pontbriand, the Park Service’s branch chief for emergency services. And it would complement other electronic devices, he said, because there are often blackout spots in cell-phone or two-way radio coverage.

“This is not a stand-alone device,” he said. “Should this be used in place of a radio? Not a good idea.”

Project Lifesaver hopes to demonstrate the transmitters for Park Service officials on Alaska’s Mount McKinley in the next few months, Mrs. Healey-Flores said. The extreme conditions on Mount McKinley — the tallest mountain in North America — make it an attractive spot to experiment with the equipment, she said.

Mr. Smith said the radio signals can be read from 2,500 feet in the air. They also don’t require satellite technology and have a 45-day battery.

The technology behind Project Lifesaver’s radio transmitter has been around for years, Mr. Pontbriand said. Now there are personal locater beacons, portable satellite phone and devices that use the Global Positioning System — not to mention the growing prevalence of cell phones.

Mr. Pontbriand, who oversees search and rescue for 400 federal parks, said Park Service officials have been concerned that new developments in personal technology are leading people to take more extreme risks in the wild.

A climber in Big Bend National Park in Texas last month used a personal locator beacon to call for help, he said.

“People get this false sense of security that all you have to do is push a button,” Mr. Pontbriand said. “But it should not replace common sense.”

The Mount Hood hikers had cell phones, and that helped in alerting rescuers, he said.

“That was all fine and dandy,” he said. “But they still couldn’t get up there for five days because of the weather.”

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