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East Grand Forks police launch program to track vulnerable people prone to wandering

East Grand Forks firefighter Ryan Swang uses a radio receiver to locate a missing person in a demonstration Saturday. It took him about 15 minutes to find a police employee wearing a radio transmitter hiding in the neighborhood behind City Hall. Photo credit: Tu-Uyen Tran / Grand Forks Herald.1 / 4
East Grand Forks police Sgt. Mike Anderson displays a Project Lifesaver radio receiver used to track missing people equipped with transmitters. Photo credit: Tu-Uyen Tran / Grand Forks Herald.2 / 4
Garrett Lamb, 4, East Grand Forks, wears a Project Lifesaver radio transmitter on his wrist that makes it easier for searchers to find him if he goes missing. Photo credit: Tu-Uyen Tran / Grand Forks Herald.3 / 4
Janet Luettjohann, the grandmother of Anthony Kuznia, an 11-year-old autistic boy who drowned after wandering from home, and her boyfriend Brian Hvidston. Kuznia lived with them. Luettjohann is a driving force behind Project Lifesaver in East Grand Forks, which she said she hopes will prevent a tragic loss like her grandson. Photo credit: Tu-Uyen Tran / Grand Forks Herald.4 / 4

Garrett Lamb, a 4-year-old East Grand Forks boy, is what his father Daree calls a “bolter.” He’s scared the elder Lamb on more than a few occasions when he ran off and disappeared somewhere as children with autistic disorders tend to do.

But the past two months, Daree Lamb said he and his wife Shannon have felt a greater sense of security because of a little tracking device Garrett has been wearing. “It makes me feel really safe.”

The boy is one of the first five clients of a national program recently adopted by the city called Project Lifesaver.

Lamb has seen the worst case scenario when a child wanders off. He said his oldest son Gavin, 15, was a friend of Anthony Kuznia, an 11-year-old boy who drowned in the Red River after wandering from home. Daree and Gavin Lamb were among the hundreds of volunteers and emergency responders who spent about 24 hours looking for Kuznia.

Contrast that with the average of 30 minutes it takes to find a missing person wearing a Project Lifesaver radio transmitter.

Had the program been available for Kuznia, police Sgt. Mike Anderson said, he doubts so many would’ve been needed to find the boy. Anderson is among those trained to use radio receivers that can locate people wearing transmitters.

The program has been in pilot status but now it's available for families in East Grand Forks, Grand Forks and Polk County as far as Crookston, police said Saturday. It’s aimed at vulnerable people who tend to wander off, including autistic children and seniors with dementia.

Hide and seek

On Saturday, East Grand Forks responders demonstrated how quickly a missing person could be found using Project Lifesaver.

Anderson said they call it a “rabbit chase,” a training scenario in which a person wearing a transmitter goes and hides while others equipped with radio receivers hunt down the quarry.

Linda Wald, who helps administer Project Lifesaver here, played the rabbit Saturday in the neighborhood behind City Hall. Anderson and firefighter Ryan Swang played the hunters.

Walking down different streets, they swept their receivers back and forth, listening for a pinging signal from Wald’s transmitter. The antennas are sensitive to the direction of the pings, hence the sweeping, but radio signals can bounce off buildings and mislead searchers, according to Anderson.

He said the receivers can be tuned to different transmitters, which have a range of up to three miles, so he can hear Wald’s ping but not Garrett Lamb’s. The portion of the radio spectrum used by Project Lifesaver allows for about 200 transmitters in the local area.

On Saturday, it took Swang about 15 minutes to find Wald because he was following a signal bouncing off a building. Anderson followed a more direct signal and found the quarry in 10 minutes.

Time is of the essence in these kinds of searches, according to Anderson. With an average walking speed of about 2 mph, a person can wander half a mile in just 15 minutes. That’s the maximum time it takes for responders to arrive on scene in East Grand Forks.


Project Lifesaver arrived in the area primarily because of Kuznia’s death.

His grandmother, Janet Luettjohann, has been a major driving force in applying for grants and raising funds. Alesha Coleman, the mom of another autistic boy, told her about the program after her grandson died.

Luettjohann said Saturday she hopes no other family must go through what hers went through. “We have too many vulnerable people in our society right now.”

The program costs the city $5,000 for equipment and training but that was covered by a grant. Each client must pay about $330 to rent a transmitter for the first year and then $25 a month for subsequent years. Luettjohann and Coleman have been raising money to help those who can’t afford the cost.

Project Lifesaver isn’t a panacea though, according to Anderson. It takes some doing but a wandering person could rip off the transmitter, which would force responders to search the old-fashioned way. If a person is too far away, searchers would have to drive around finding the signal. “Everything has limitations,” he said.

More info: To find out more about Project Lifesaver, call Officer Jake Thompson or Linda Wald at (218) 773-1104.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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