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Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Silver Alert Program

Recently, our Search & Rescue team was called upon to search for a missing 80 year-old woman with advanced dementia. While we were out in the field conducting a ground search and air rescue was flying over the heavily treed area, a message was displayed on nearby automated highway signs, just as it would be for a missing child under the well-known Amber Alert program.

In this case, the programmed message was a "silver alert," intended to spread the word about a senior who'd wandered from her family's campsite several hours earlier. Soon after the alert was displayed, calls came in from passing motorists who thought they'd spotted the woman and her small dog along the interstate. Sure enough, those sightings proved to be the subject of our search, who was returned to her loved ones unharmed.

While the Amber Alert program, which was established in the mid-90s and makes use of state transportation department programmable road signs, public broadcast systems, and a 511 emergency call-line, is in force in all 50 states, the Silver Alert Program has a number of states to go. According to the OLR Research Report of January, 2009, thirteen states had passed Silver Alert legislation at the time, with five others pending. The good news is, the program is catching on. By March, the number had risen to 18 states with Silver Alert Programs and 14 pending. (See: Silver Alert Initiatives in the States from the National Association of State Units on Aging) Also in March, 2009, the National Silver Alert Act was passed by the US Senate to make the safe recovery of missing senior citizens a nationwide project.

In 2006, Colorado became the first state to formally establish an official Silver Alert Program, soon followed by Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas in 2007. Virginia has a similar program called Senior Alert.

In North Carolina, for one, the alerts don't specify health information about the subject, in order to protect the missing person from potential abuse, harm or exploitation.

Governor Charlie Crist of Florida followed suit in October, 2008, with his state's own Silver Alert Program, after the search for an elderly woman who checked herself out of a Pinellas County nursing home and accidentally drove into the intracoastal waterway. Her body was found less than a week later by local fisherman.

Everything I've read about Silver Alert Programs has indicated that the majority of those seniors reported missing in this fashion have been safely returned. One of many examples is the case of 83-year-old Helen Long of North Carolina, who left her home without notice in January, 2008. Her daughter called state police, who broadcast a description of Ms. Long's truck on the state's Silver Alert system. Six hours later, a UPS driver saw the truck and called for help, and Long was returned to her home unharmed.

For additional reading on Silver Alert Programs, see:

Silver Alert: For When Elders Go Missing by Christine Vestal

"Silver Alerts" Sound The Alarm When Certain Seniors Go Missing from the National Conference of State Legislatures

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