By Marisa Donelan
Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Massachusetts)
LEOMINSTER, Mass. — Time can play a huge factor in any search, but when a missing person has Alzheimer's, dementia or autism, finding them quickly is critical.
So Leominster firefighter Lance Mason is heading up an effort to bring Project Lifesaver to the city, and said the radio-frequency tracking device has been proven to find subscribers in 30 minutes or less.
Children with autism particularly are known to be drawn to water, Mason said.
"If an autistic child goes missing, quite often, unfortunately, it ends up in the death of the child, often by drowning," he said Friday. "A lot of kids with autism don't understand danger, fear and safety."
Mason, 33, has drawn on personal experience — his 6-year-old son William is autistic — in more than a year of traveling the state to teach firefighters, EMTs and police officers about autism through the Autism Law Enforcement Educational Coalition (ALEC).
And he said Project Lifesaver, which is not connected with ALEC, could be a relief for parents and caretakers of autistic children, along with those who care for adults with dementia.
"They've done 1,600 searches nationally, and it's resulted in zero serious injuries and zero deaths," Mason said.
If the city is able to raise enough money to pay for the system, subscribers would wear a band similar to a hospital bracelet, which can be tracked a mile and a half over land if the subscriber is reported missing. Batteries and bands need to be replaced monthly, and if fundraisers are successful, Mason said the program could be free for qualifying families.
"(Leominster Fire Chief Ronald Pierce) didn't want any out-of-pocket expenses for the families," he said. "I know parents with autistic children are absolutely strapped for cash. They're paying out-of-pocket for different therapies."
Pierce praised Mason for his work teaching autism awareness classes to first responders, saying Mason's personal experience with autism makes the course "very genuine. He teaches with such a passion, and I'm very, very proud of him."
Mason, a Winchendon resident and Leominster firefighter for five years, said he and his wife Sonya suspected William was deaf as a toddler, when he wouldn't respond to his parents. Doctors at New England Medical Center later diagnosed autism.
Mason has William's name tattooed on his right forearm above a large ribbon filled with colorful puzzle pieces — the autism awareness symbol.
"I wouldn't ever change my son," he said. "I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the world. He's taught me a lot about compassion, and that's made me a better firefighter and EMT."
Mason, a Marine Corps veteran who comes from a family of Marines, said he had hoped William might have followed a similar path.
"I had all these hopes that one day William would go into the Marine Corps and one day come work here with me, that was my selfish reaction," he said. "Now I understand what's really important that he and my daughter (Samantha, 3) are healthy and happy. That's all that matters."
Firefighters and police should know the special needs of autism, especially because about half of autistic people are "nonverbal," meaning they can't explain an emergency or cry out for help, Mason said.
Most of Mason's fellow instructors are parents or siblings of autistic people, and he said he hasn't been to a fire station in the state where people aren't closely related to an autistic person.
Other methods parents of autistic children use, such as bars on upstairs windows and fences with outer latches, are things rescue workers should be aware of for their own safety, he said.
Most area fire departments have undergone autism-awareness courses, which Mason said count toward EMT certification, but parents of autistic children can find out if their local department has done the training by calling the department. Mason said state funding and an autism research group pays for his courses, and they don't cost departments any money.
He also works in Leominster's fire alarm office, where he said some city parents have asked him to put information about autistic children into the department's computer.
"It's information like where the child's bedroom is, anything they want us to know," he said. "I would encourage every parent in the city of Leominster that wants to be aware to come in and let us know. At the same time, I know not every parent wants us to have that information."
Mason said the Leominster School Department's autism specialist has told him there are more than 100 students listed as autistic out of about 6,200 students. Special-education groups have come into the station to learn more about fire safety and to become familiar with what firefighters do, he said.
"It can't hurt," he said of visiting with special-needs children. "Any level of comfort between us and them is good."
Not all autistic children and adults will qualify for Project Lifesaver bracelets, Mason said. It's just for those who tend to bolt or wander, he said.
Pierce said plans are in the works for a Project Lifesaver demonstration and fundraisers beginning in February.
"It's a wonderful program, and I support it 100 percent," he said. "There's a great need for this in the city of Leominster."
Mason and Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella said Leominster would have the first Project Lifesaver program in Worcester County.
Mazzarella said in his inaugural address the city will seek $30,000 in private donations for the program.
"We have an aging population, and that combined with a growing number of kids with autism, I think there are enough people in the community who are impacted," he said. "You never know who it's impacted. You never know who it touches."
Mazzarella said he's heard of cases where adults with dementia will take a walk on a nice day and become disoriented after dark, and said the program will reassure their families. He also praised Mason's work.
"People will feel safer," he said. "He's trying to help other families. There's nothing more admirable than that."
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