Haunted by high-profile missing persons cases in which detectives can’t seem to catch a meaningful break, central Maine police departments hope improved information-gathering in the crucial first hours of a disappearance will help solve cases before trails run cold.

Dispatchers are now being given lists of specific questions to ask at the first report of a disappearance to get investigators on the right track earlier than in the past.

“We know that in those critical missing children cases, the chance of recovering a child safely diminishes rapidly as time goes on,” said Kristen Anderson, executive director of training and outreach at National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization.

Maine State Police list 14 people who are the subject of active searches on its missing persons web page, including Ayla Reynolds, the toddler who was reported missing from her father’s Waterville home on Dec. 17, 2011, and has yet to be found.

The Waterville Regional Communications Center recently became the third communications center in the state to be certified in new procedures for handling missing persons calls that are designed to get the best possible information in the first conversations with people reporting a missing person.

“The actions dispatchers can take really make a difference in the outcome of these calls,” Anderson said. “We want to make sure that from the time the phone is answered to the time the child is recovered that everyone in the responding chain is working on best practices and have proper training.”

Waterville missing persons

In 2012, the latest year for which information is available, more than 660,000 missing person reports were filed nationally. More than 87,000 were still active at the start of 2013, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

Waterville has had its share of high-profile missing person cases, including Ayla Reynolds, which has garnered national media attention and has been called by Maine State Police the largest criminal investigation in the state’s history.

In 911 transcripts of that case, Justin DiPietro called 911 to tell an emergency dispatcher that he put his daughter Ayla Reynolds to bed at 8 p.m. Dec. 16, 2011, and that his sister checked on her two hours later, at about 10 p.m. He dialed 911 the next day at 8:49 a.m. During the call, DiPietro is asked when he last saw Ayla.

“When I put her to bed last night. My sister checked on her. Um, woke up this morning, went to her room and she’s not there,” he says.

At one point, the phone call ends and DiPietro calls back, explaining “my cellphone died.” Asked by a dispatcher about the exact time someone last saw Ayla in her crib, DiPietro asks his sister, Elisha.

“Um, Elisha, when was the last, when is last time you went in her room last night when you saw her?” DiPietro asks. She responds 10 p.m. and he repeats the time to the dispatcher.

DiPietro was adamant when the dispatcher asked whether it was possible Ayla had crawled out of her crib and whether they had “checked all through the house.”

“No, ma’am, she, there is no way she coulda got, there’s no way she could,” he responded.

That 911 call prompted a search by police that grew to include game wardens, FBI agents and other officers who canvassed neighborhoods, lowered streams and sent divers into the nearby Kennebec River. Investigators found blood inside the home, and they have concluded that Ayla is no longer alive and was a victim of foul play. Detectives also say the three adults who were at the home — Justin DiPietro, Elisha DiPietro and Courtney Roberts — know more than they’ve told investigators, but the case remains unsolved and no charges have been filed.

Waterville police say new training and consistent procedures with handling missing persons calls could help make a difference.

Information can be missed

Police Chief Joseph Massey said that because no procedures specifying what questions should be asked of a person making a report — and in what order the questions should be asked — it’s difficult to know if every bit of pertinent information was gathered during the initial police contact in situations such as the Ayla Reynolds case.

“We’ve seen the need for this in previous cases,” Massey said. “What I don’t know is what the dispatchers asked on those particular occasions — did that dispatcher ask all the pertinent information he or she should have? They do a good job, but with something like medical emergencies, we don’t leave certain questions up to their memory. Now, with reports of missing persons, we don’t leave it to memory, either.”

The Waterville Regional Communications Center is now equipped with computerized questionnaires that a dispatcher accesses quickly on a pop-up dialogue on a computer screen. Instantly, the caller is led through a series of questions that investigators know from experience are vital to finding a missing person. City police were recognized by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the specialized training and procedures it has adopted.

“It instills the best practices when responding to missing persons’ calls,” Massey said. “We’re very pleased that we’ve been recognized, and it’s because of the hard work that Sgt. Jennifer Weaver and all the dispatchers put in.”

Weaver, who is the communications center sergeant, attended a two-day seminar in Washington, D.C., and later had the department’s dispatchers take online courses to better understand the protocol the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hopes to integrate into the thousands of law enforcement agencies and dispatch centers nationwide.

Weaver said the seminar provided a significant amount of information about the best policies and procedures to follow to turn a missing person calls into a tool for investigators. Every detail, Weaver said, is important in responding to a missing persons call.

“Every time a child is missing, we ask a series of questions, including what time they were last seen, where they were last seen, the name, date of birth, sex, race, height, complexion, any physical attributes, what type of clothing they were wearing, any accessories, any pets or anyone else with them, if they have medical conditions,” Weaver said. “We developed a template so that the same questions are always asked. It’s really important to get that information and description and location out as accurately and quickly as possible.”

Somerset, Knox also certified

The Somerset Regional Communications Center in Skowhegan and Knox Regional Communications Center in Rockland have also been certified by the national center as having adopted the new procedures.

Across the country, 178 dispatch and communications centers have adopted the new protocols. The exploited and missing children center has been working to increase use of the questionnaires on the front lines of law enforcement.

“We were pulling the 911 centers into the training because we found there was a disconnect in the communication. Most of the previous training was focused on law enforcement and not the call centers.

“It’s not like these calls happen all the time, like a shoplifting call might,” Anderson said. “That means the dispatchers may not have the same amount of practice. When a missing child report does happen, it’s not the time to pull out a policy manual.”

Police are quick to note that using the new procedures does not mean all missing persons calls will end with a happy reunion. But Massey said it will allow police to collect vital facts quickly.

“In some cases it will not help, but it’s very important that the dispatcher follows the protocol so they get the information right up front,” he said. “Just a few days ago, we had a call that a 3-year-old wandered off, the mother called frantically, we quickly coordinated a search and told the mother to go back and check the house, where she found her child.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @jessescardina

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