YIR: Superior Search and Rescue trains with new Project Lifesaver equipment

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first appeared in November 2021.

HOUGHTON — On a damp November evening, Superior Search and Rescue volunteers gathered in the Michigan Tech trails parking lot for a Project Lifesaver training exercise.

Project Lifesaver is a program designed to reduce the time needed to locate a missing “at risk” individual. The program provides radio frequency (RF) transmitters to people prone to wandering, including those with cognitive conditions such as autism, down syndrome, and Alzheimer’s.

Locating a missing person can take hours or even days, but with Project Lifesaver technology, the average rescue time is only 30 minutes. Project Lifesaver has already helped rescue over 3,800 people according to the organization’s website.

The ability to quickly locate a missing person can literally save lives, especially in the Upper Peninsula where weather conditions can be severe and temperatures are often below freezing.

“The reason why we’re doing this is that incidents have been happening, especially within our region with missing persons that have cognitive difficulties,” said Superior Search and Rescue President Darian Reed. “After a few of those incidents occurred, and especially after the Ontonagon search for 17-year-old Cameron Besonen, this became something that we really needed to do.”

In April, multiple law enforcement agencies and hundreds of volunteers conducted a multi-day search for Cam Besonen, an autistic teen who disappeared from his family’s home near Paulding in Ontonagon County. A heroic search effort ended in tragedy, as Cam’s body was discovered after three days.

After this tragedy and other missing persons situations, local law enforcement decided that it needed to be better prepared. “Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon, and Baraga County sheriffs along with Superior Search and Rescue joined together,” Reed explained. “We had a grant submitted to Portage Health and they funded the project.”

The Portage Health Foundation grant will fund transmitters for 50 families that have a member with a cognitive impairment. Then, if someone goes missing, the four sheriff’s departments and Superior Search and Rescue can use special receivers to track the transmitter’s radio signal and locate the missing person.

Superior Search and Rescue is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit emergency response organization based in Houghton. The organization is supported entirely by grants and public donations, and staffed exclusively by trained volunteers. The organization deploys at the request of law enforcement for assistance with land-based search and rescue.

On Thursday night, the group of 10 to 12 volunteers donned fluorescent safety vests and listened as training officer Patrick Diedrich explained the new equipment.

“The radio transmitter has a specific frequency. So, the receivers can be programmed to find the specific frequency and locate that one in particular,” Diedrich explained.

“It kind of looks like a Ghostbusters gun, with an antenna array,” he continued as he showed the receiver to the volunteers. “It’s a directional antenna, and as you’re pointing it around, wherever you pick up the strongest signal, that’s where the transmitter is.”

Diedrich also provided information on Alzhimers, autism, and Down Syndrome, so that volunteers are better prepared to interact with individuals who have these conditions during a search and rescue situation.

After the briefing, volunteers practiced using the receivers to locate hidden transmitters. They trooped into the dark forest, scanning from side to side with the receivers and following the beeping noises that the devices emitted. As they drew closer to the hidden transmitter, the receivers beeped more loudly. After a few minutes, the volunteers located a Ziploc bag containing the transmitter, a small device that can be worn like a wristwatch.

In a relatively flat area, the receiver can pick up a transmitter’s signal from a mile away. In the hilly terrain surrounding Houghton and Hancock, the signal does not travel as far, but the receivers are still effective at rapidly locating transmitters.

“I was pretty surprised when we were learning how to use this program,” said Diedrich, describing an earlier training exercise that he had participated in alongside local law enforcement in Houghton and Hancock. “One of the deputies would take a transmitter and go off, and we had to mobilize and find them. We didn’t have any search take longer than 30 minutes, and that was with them trying to be sneaky about it too.”

Diedrich also said that these receivers could be taken airborne by the Civil Air Patrol, a partner of Superior Search and Rescue. From the air, a receiver can pick up a transmitter’s signal from five to seven miles away.

After locating the first transmitter, volunteers regrouped and set their receivers to a different radio frequency, before heading deeper into the trail network in search of a second transmitter.

They were unphased by the cold weather and lack of sunlight. “We are going to be training in all weather types,” said Reed. “A search for a missing individual can occur at any time. Whether it’s raining or snowy or even a nice sunny day.”

Reed said that he expects that local law enforcement will begin distributing the wristbands within the next one to two months. Families interested in receiving an RF transmitter should contact their local sheriff’s department or visit phfgive.org/projectlifesaver.

Individuals interested in volunteering with Superior Search and Rescue can visit the organization’s website, superiorsar.org, for an application. Donations to support Superior Search and Rescue can be made through the Portage Health Foundation.


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