AUGUSTA — Maine is using a new “Silver Alert” system to search statewide for a missing elderly person suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other illness.

Modeled after the Amber Alert system for abducted children, it was used recently in two cases. One was the search in May for a missing 87-year-old Smithfield man whose body was found about 24 hours after he was last seen by his family. The other, earlier this week, was when a 83-year-old Starks man who had been missing for almost a day was found alive.

Silver Alerts nationwide use media outlets such as commercial radio stations, television stations, and cable TV to broadcast information about missing persons. The system also uses variable-message signs on roadways to alert motorists to be on the lookout for missing seniors.

The new system was passed into law in 2010 after a man who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease left his residence in southern Maine to find a missing woman in northern Maine, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The missing woman had been found days before and the man died, Turcotte said.

The law requires the Department of Public Safety, which oversees Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine State Police, to work with the Department of Transportation, the Maine Turnpike Authority, the Office of the Governor, representatives of broadcast groups and law enforcement agencies in a consolidated effort, said Edith A. Smith, director of information and education at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The legislation also institutes a mandatory orientation and training on missing persons with dementia for law enforcement to create consistency across state and local agencies.

In cases in which a person is believed to have gone missing on foot, Silver Alerts have used emergency notification systems to notify residents of the neighborhood surrounding the missing person’s last known location, according to a report published last year in Maine Insights, a bimonthly news magazine.

Lt. Kevin Adam, Maine Warden Service search and rescue coordinator, said when the weather is nice — usually spring and fall — the number of calls to search for people suffering from an illness increases. This spring, wardens searched for eight people with Alzheimer’s, seven people who were despondent, six people with autism, and eight people who were planning to commit suicide, according to the release.

“Those categories typically will have more activity in the nice spring and fall weather and diminish in the heat of summer and cold of winter,” Adam said.

A search-and-rescue effort typically begins when a dispatch center receives information that a person is lost or injured in the woods or waters of Maine. The Warden Service then responds using trained staff, certified volunteers, K-9 units and equipment such as aircraft and all-terrain vehicles.

This past week, game wardens searched for a missing boater in Weston whose body was recovered in Deering Lake, five miles north of Danforth. Unfortunately, the boater was not wearing a personal flotation device and drowned.

The Maine Warden Service, the lead agency for search and rescues in Maine’s woods and inland waters, has been called out to 116 search-and-rescue missions since April 1, putting it on track to reaching its annual average of 480, according to the release.

Since April 1, the Maine Warden Service has received 38 calls for lost or distressed boaters; 14 calls for missing children; and 10 calls for lost or injured hikers, the release states.

Search and rescue costs to the Maine Warden Service and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife average $300,000 annually.

Two dependable resources when searching for missing people are aircraft and K-9 units, according to Adam. The Warden Service currently has two trained pilots who have found people from the air, providing GPS coordinates to wardens on the ground.

Chief Pilot Charlie Later recently found a Harmony woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease after he was up in the air for about 10 minutes. The woman had been missing for at least a day in unfavorable weather conditions.

The Maine Warden Service has nine K-9 teams that are certified for search and rescue. Wardens also count on K-9 teams from Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, a group of certified search-and-rescue professionals who donate their time and resources because of their strong dedication, Adam said.

Search and Rescue Dogs has 10 certified teams and six in training. Certification to be a K-9 team takes up to two years.

“K-9s are one of the most efficient search resources we have,” Lt. Adam said. “During the summer, K-9s work best at night when temperatures are cooler, and when there is no other person in the woods except the lost person and other K-9 units. A search planner’s job is to get them in the right patch of woods so the K-9 team can do what it has been trained to do.”

The Warden Service also works closely with the Maine Association of Search and Rescue, which is comprised of certified volunteers who specialize in search-and-rescue techniques, such as grid search, technical rescue, equestrian and water. “(Association) units are spread throughout the state and quickly respond to searches,” Adam said. “They take time off from work to search and to train, and they pay for gas, food and equipment from their own pockets.”

Doug Harlow — 474-9534

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