Raleigh, N.C. — The state has a new tool to help officials find people with mental impairments when they are missing.
The new “Silver Alert” was officially launched Tuesday. State officials say it's much like he Amber Alert used to tell the public when a child has gone missing.
A Silver Alert will be issued when people wander away from their homes or nursing facilities. Its biggest benefit is the ability to spread word of a missing person quickly and over a wide area.
Law enforcement officials hope Silver Alerts can help them avoid situations like that of 76-year-old Mildred Rogers, who wandered from her Raleigh home in August. She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. When authorities found her, it was too late.
"Family members or caregivers become concerned because their loved one may have run an errand and become confused or gone for a walk in the neighborhood and become lost," said Bryan Beatty, secretary of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.
“The Silver Alert program is designed to quickly help find those individuals and return them home safely,” Beatty explained.
Officials expect 25 to 30 alerts will be issued statewide each month. Police typically have waited 24 hours before spreading the word about a missing adult. The Silver Alert gets the word out immediately.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says time is of the essence when looking for a missing person.
“When a person starts walking and sometimes when they have dementia, they'll get something in their mind – maybe they're going back to their home or going back to a play area – and they don't have any idea how fast they were walking,” Harrison said.
The Silver Alert puts several tools in officials’ hands. They'll use highway alert signs if the person may be driving. They also can make a thousand automated phone calls a minute in the area where the person disappeared.
Administrators admit false alarms are possible, but they say that risk is justified.
“If it saves a person, (even) if occasionally it ends up that perhaps that (if) we knew the full story it wouldn't be issued, it's worth doing just to save the individuals we do save,” Beatty said.
There are strict guidelines for issuing a Silver Alert. The person must be at least 18 and have some type of cognitive impairment, and local law enforcement must notify the state Center for Missing Persons.
All Silver Alerts must go through that organization.