When Erin Madden’s 91-year-old father didn’t return promptly from a trip to a grocery store near his home in North Babylon where he was headed to pick up paper towels, the family became perplexed and worried.
Madden’s mother had dementia and needed full-time home-care help, but her father, William Reuschle, was consistently responsible, still able to drive, and had never had an accident. Once the family was notified by his wife’s live-in health aide that Reuschle had been gone for six hours, the Suffolk County police were called. Immediately, officials put out a Silver Alert that flashed the make and model of his car on electronic information signs along the highways.
“Police were getting a lot of phone calls, which was good,” recalled Madden, 54, of Islip Terrace.
Reuschle, now 93, had a severe infection that caused him to become disoriented. He had gotten as far as Commack when someone in the area who had seen the Silver Alert realized he had spotted a man fitting that description get a cup of coffee at a 7-Eleven; the store employee checked the store cameras to confirm. Reuschle was later found in Huntington Station, after he ran out of gas. The alert had tipped police that Reuschle had traveled to the Huntington area.
“We live on the South Shore,” Madden said. “The whole family was looking on the South Shore. We never thought to look on the North Shore,” she said of the incident that happened last year. Reuschle, by his daughter’s description a humble man who had stormed the beaches at Normandy during World War II, was fine after he was treated for his infection.
Silver Alert is a nationwide program that began in 2006, and is enacted through state legislation. At least 41 states take part in a Silver Alert-type program, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Suffolk County was the first in New York to pass Silver Alert legislation in 2009, and the program went statewide in 2011 when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill into law.
The special bulletins take advantage of the electronic signs over highways as well as radio broadcasts and social media to alert motorists of a missing person. “Silver” refers to older people with dementia and also for adults with cognitive impairment, where their lives or the lives of others may be in danger.
Silver Alert mimics the national Amber Alert program that seeks to locate abducted children as quickly as possible through the same broadcast methods, as well as coordination among public safety organizations. It is named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl from Arlington, Texas, who was murdered in 1996. After her body was found, the National Center for Exploited & Missing Children worked with the federal government to access the existing Emergency Alert System when a child is feared to be abducted. It allows residents in the area and others nearby to help in the search soon after the incident is reported. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 186 Amber Alerts were issued in 2014, with 154 children found; 52 of those were a direct result of the Amber Alerts.
Officials say the Silver Alert program is successful in helping to quickly get the word out about missing adults who may have become confused about where they were going or how to get home. “This is another tool that assists law enforcement to protect those who need help,” Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said. In 2015, the county issued 30 Silver Alerts; the previous year, 47 were announced. While most people eventually return on their own, Sini said, at least five people were found in those two years as a direct result of the alert system. “In 2015, a 911 caller learned about it, spotted the individual, and called it in,” Sini said, citing one example. “One person saw an alert on News 12, and called police.”
In Suffolk, Sini said, Silver Alerts go out as soon someone is reported missing, and the incident is confirmed. The police then notify news agencies and the alert is posted on its website and the electronic road signs. With the electronic road postings especially, the alerts allow motorists to spot the type of car the missing person is likely to be driving.
In Nassau, the missing person for whom a Silver Alert is issued usually has some sort of physical or cognitive impairment and may need medical treatment, said Det. Lt. Louis Monteleone. An alert can also be issued “if we feel a person is in danger.”
Nassau recently started a Project Lifesaver program. Residents who have a family member with cognitive impairment can ask for a transmitter, worn like a watch. Police can track the device for up to a 4-mile radius, which is very helpful early on in the search process, Monteleone said. The person must be impaired enough to have a full-time caregiver and must live with someone. Officers involved in finding missing persons will alert the media and ask the New York State Department of Transportation to put the alert on its electronic highway signs. “We want many people to see it,” he said.
Drivers are key in helping to locate the subjects of Silver Alerts. In 2014, a West Islip man suffering from dementia was found the same day a Silver Alert was issued for him, officials said. His return was due in large part to an attentive driver who called police after seeing the elderly man driving a blue 2014 Honda Accord on Southern State Parkway as described in the broadcast. “It works,” State Police spokesman Trooper Frank Bandiero told Newsday at the time. “Someone read it, said, ‘There’s the car.’ And they called and we found him, and everybody’s fine.”
In Suffolk, the basic Silver Alert program is complemented with a registration program. Individuals or family members can sign up with the department and receive a bracelet that helps police quickly identify someone who may be disoriented or lost. The bracelet has an identifying number that first responders can use when contacting police, Sini said.
The program currently has about 1,500 registrants. Families must register their loved ones every two years so the information is current. The Suffolk police commissioner said the program is free and effective. “Sign up for our Silver Alert program,” Sini said. “You never know. It could save a life.”