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Police work with programs, groups to assist response

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Kelsey Shea | North Journal
Packets given to residents who sign up for Premise Alert include stickers to place on vehicles to help police officers or other emergency responders identify those who have special needs.

Northern Regional police Chief Robert Amann knows that loud sirens, flashing lights and barking dogs can cause sensory overload for people with autism and make an emergency situation go from bad to worse.

His department has participated in Premise Alert, a program that allows 911 dispatchers to alert emergency responders about the special needs of residents with conditions such as autism or dementia before they arrive on the scene, for about seven years.

“If we know ahead of time that someone might react differently to a situation, that allows us to be ahead of the game so that we're not creating more of a problem,” Amann said.

The Northern Regional Police Department has about 10 residents in Bradford Woods and Marshall, Pine and Richland townships whose needs are registered with the county.

Now that the Premise Alert program is going countywide, along with other services to help those in law enforcement and families and caregivers keep track of individuals with autism or dementia, Northern Regional will play a larger role in helping better serve those with special needs.

Northern Regional will begin working with Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that helps locate adults and children who wander because of issues with Alzheimer's disease, autism or other conditions, Amann said.

Those enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small personal transmitter around the wrist or ankle that emits a tracking signal. If a client goes missing, the caregiver notifies a local Project Lifesaver agency, and a team responds.

Two Northern Regional officers will be trained on a tool that can track those who go missing in the department's member communities, along with others in the North Hills, such as Franklin Park; McCandless; and Ross, Shaler and Hampton townships.

Northern Regional is one of four police departments in the county who will have the tool to track these missing individuals, Amann said.

“If this tool saves one child, it's worth it,” he said.

Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan said there has been a lack of awareness when it comes to interaction between those in law enforcement and people with autism, and he hopes to better educate officers and emergency medical responders through these programs.

“As we looked around the country, we saw stories of more and more actions misinterpreted, sometimes with unfortunate results,” Swan said.

Money seized during drug prosecutions is paying for safety equipment for families such as tracking bracelets, transmitters and batteries, locking devices and door alarms, Swan said.

Earlier this year, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala's office distributed a DVD to police agencies across the county to demonstrate ways to properly interact with people with autism.

The DVD piggybacks on a film the Autism Society of Pittsburgh created about a decade ago, society President Dan Torisky said.

Torisky said society officials are expanding their training to include all levels of the legal system, “from patrol and probation officers all the way up to magistrates and judges.”

“They want their people to be able to do this, because it reduces their problems and reduces the likelihood of a situation escalating to catastrophic proportions,” he said.

Torisky, of Monroeville, knows how hard it can be to recognize on the spot that someone has autism.

“It often takes a psychiatrist several hours to properly reach a diagnosis,” he said.

The Franklin Park and McCandless police departments both are participating in the Premise Alert program, and caregivers of special-needs individuals are encouraged to register.

“We've had exposure to autistic people before,” said McCandless police Chief Gary Anderson, who considers Premise Alert an asset to emergency responders.

“We'll have a little advantage in helping someone,” he said.

Tammie Sauers, a Richland resident who is involved in the local autism community and whose son has autism, knows firsthand the problems that a lack of awareness can lead to in emergency situations.

Last year, police responded when Sauers' son, Ben, climbed a 60-foot tree and wouldn't come down. She said the loud sirens and the flashing lights were too much for him to handle and made the problem worse.

She would like to work with Northern Regional police on the Premise Alert program and distribute registration forms in her store, Precious Needs in Richland, which sells specialized products for people with autism.

“I think it's a fantastic idea.” Sauers said.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or kshea@tribweb.com. Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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