Deb Brettingen remembers all too well what it's like when a loved one forgets where and when they are.
When she was in high school, Brettingen's grandfather, Peter Cebula, was in his 90's and suffered from Alzheimer's Disease when he wandered away from their home in Marquette County. She followed him through the woods near their house and then several miles down the road.
Cebula even threatened to hurt her for following him. To make matters worse, Brettingen was on her own.
"There were no cell phones," she said. "It was just me following him on the highway."
Fortunately her story has a happy ending, her grandfather was picked up by a neighbor he recognized and taken to a hospital.
But it could have been worse. If Cebula hadn't agreed to go with his neighbor, the Sheriff's department would have taken him by force.
That's why Brettingen, now the Sensitive Crimes Investigator for the Chippewa Falls Police Department, understands how big of a deal Wisconsin's new Silver Alert program is.
Starting on Aug. 1, Wisconsin put the Silver Alert program into effect. In many ways the program works similar to the Amber Alert system, but it applies to a different demographic.
A Silver Alert is tripped when a person with Alzheimer's, dementia or other permanent cognitive disabilities, who is over 60 years old goes missing and there is reason to believe that the cognitive difficulties factor into the disappearance.
Like an Amber Alert, a Silver Alert will prompt email, text and media notifications about the missing person.
Hopefully the wide dissemination of information can lead to a quick recovery of the missing person.
But the police department isn't just participating in the program. It is also teaming up with local nursing homes and assisted living facilities to create a database of essential information about at-risk individuals.
Before the police can enlist the help of the public in finding a missing person they need to be able to inform people who they are looking for and where they might be. And as with all missing person scenarios, time is critical.
Collecting information like current photos, descriptions, make and model of any vehicle the person has access to as well as previous residences and work places makes locating the missing person easier.
People suffering from cognitive disabilities can forget where and when they are. The confusion can lead them to try to return to a place they no longer live or a job they no longer work. By compiling this information ahead of time, the police won't be scrambling if and when a person goes missing.
With smart phones and social media, sharing this information has never been easier.
Nearly instantaneously the police can inform thousands of people about the missing person, meaning family members don't have to find their missing loved ones on their own like Brettingen did.
"There was nothing like this back then," she said. "Now we can have 14,000 people looking for them."
A Silver Alert can practically tap the entire population of Chippewa Falls in the event of a missing person. With all those eyes looking for a missing person, more families can have their loved ones returned to them.
And while a missing person must meet all the criteria before a Silver Alert can be activated, Brettingen said that the Police Department will still accept information about people outside the criteria. Those people might not trip an alert, but the information could still be passed out to a certain extent to help find the missing person
"It's a very personal thing," Brettingen said. "The worst case scenario can happen to you."
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