BELFAST, Maine — Late one night in February, an elderly man clad only in pajamas started walking toward Belfast on Route 3.
It was 3 a.m. and 20 below zero, but a sharp-eyed and kindhearted motorist stopped and offered the man a ride, according to Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden.
The man, who was confused and nonverbal, got in the car. The driver took him to the Belfast Police Department, where officers spent an hour and a half trying to determine his name and address. The police finally contacted his shocked family members, who had no idea that the man had left the house.
The incident stuck with McFadden, and just a few days later, a local mom came to see him to ask if the city has tracking devices for people who wander. The answer was no — but McFadden and the mom, Linda Lee, decided to figure out a low-cost strategy that Belfast could implement.
And so, for the past couple of months, the city has been using a new database for officers to easily and quickly identify children with autism and adults with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues that can cause them to wander and become lost.
The voluntary database includes a recent photograph of the person and caregiver contact information. It also provides officers with tips about how to interact with individuals to calm them.
“For me, it [provides] incredible peace of mind,” Lee, whose 15-year-old son is autistic and used to run away a lot, said Thursday. “This saves so much time, and easily could save lives.”
She said that she went to area nursing homes and other places to talk about the database idea, which was met with support. Already, about 50 people are enrolled in the database, McFadden said. Shortly after it went online in Belfast, it was expanded to include information from the Searsport Police Department and the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, and this week, McFadden and Lee went to Rockland to help establish a similar database there.
“Because not everybody has access to a tracking device system, this concept has grown some legs,” McFadden said, adding that he’s heard that it’s being used in places as far away as Canada and Oregon. “It’s not like we’ve solved a problem and never have to worry about it again. But it is a situation where we’re preemptively doing something positive.”
Those interested in signing up for the wanderers’ database may do so at the Belfast Police Department, the Searsport Police Department, the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office or the Rockland Police Department. An intake form also is available at www.cityofbelfast.org/index.aspx?NID=312