Building the citizen’s Silver Alert
Last year I was part of the SAR group that managed the early stages of the search for a missing elderly man with Dementia in the Coquitlam area. This wasn’t the first such search I’ve done, and it won’t be the last, but for me this search was the last straw. My frustration at the state of readiness and response to people with Dementia wandering spilled over into a four part series on Dementia on this blog, and several articles since then.
In the series I identified the issue; dementia is prevalent in our society and is a growing problem. People with dementia wander away from home. Searches are difficult, and survival rates even in urban areas are not good, and get worse the longer the person is missing. I’ve managed several searches where the person had been found deceased, or not found at all. Despite grand provincial action plans on dementia and billions of dollars in medical research, there are no resources set aside to respond to people who wander.
There is a need to focus on the response aspect of this problem.
In part 4 I brought up the Silver Alert. The idea here is that an alerting system similar to the Amber Alert could be put into place that would let the public know a person with a cognitive deficit (usually dementia or Alzheimer’s) was missing. I ended up meeting with politicians, speaking on the radio, on TV and in print about this issue.
I know I am not an impatient person, but the lack of movement and the resistance got to me. It really bothers me that the technology exists within the mobile/cellular system to alert people to pending weather alerts and is in use throughout the United States. I really bothers me that UBC has an alerting system to notify students and staff of rare emergency situations. It bothers me that neither the Province nor any of the Municipalities seem to have the wherewithal to take on this issue.
So I decided to do something about it.
A Citizen Initiated Silver Alert
What is a silver alert really? It’s a name for a missing person with a particular set of circumstances that makes them harder to find, and more likely to need assistance. It’s a name for an alert to the public to assist looking for that person.
In other words, all we need to do to create a citizen’s silver alert is to take the missing persons reports, already vetted and issued by the police, and publicize them.
So that’s exactly what we did.
Sources of Information
It is of the utmost importance that the source of information about a missing person be an unimpeachable authority. We decided not the be a source of information, and just to syndicate information already made public by the police of jurisdiction. The Lower Mainland RCMP, The Vancouver Police, West Vancouver Police, New Westminster Police, Port Moody Police and the Delta Police all regularly post information about missing people. The design of our system DOES NOT allow members of the public to report a missing person through us.
What this means is that all missing persons cases are police cases. The police have already investigated and determined that the person is missing, and have also decided to ask the public or assistance. Those decisions are critical parts of the process that we have left to the definitive authorities in charge.
Silver Alert Criteria
The criteria for a silver alert should be clear in order to identify a missing person who is vulnerable. There are many Silver Alert systems in existence, and we reviewed their criteria. For example:
We decided that the criteria for our Silver Alert should encompass dementia and cognitive impairment. This can mean any form of dementia, developmental disability, or brain injury that would make a person be unable to find their way home, unable to ask for assistance, or be otherwise difficult to locate.
We also decided that the area under consideration would start with the Lower Mainland of BC, and expand as resources allowed.
The criteria are posted on the web site.
Vetting the information
We developed a system that scans the public web sites of the police in question, and alerts us when a report is posted that contains a set of key words that indicate a possible silver alert. Because it’s possible to have a false positive we felt it was important to have a human verify an alert before proceeding, so the BC Silver Alert team is emailed an notice that there’s a pending alert awaiting verification. A team member logs in to validate the alert. If it meets the criteria, it is published on the BCSilverAlert.ca web site.
We made the choice to copy the original posting on the police web site for simplicity in preparing to syndicate the information.
Once posted, the web site automatically re-posts the Alert through a number of channels. Members of the public can opt-in to any of the channels as they prefer. The channels are
- Email: boring but reliable
- Twitter: Android users can configure their mobile apps to signal them on a per-account basis
- Facebook: access to a very wide audience, more users than Twitter
- Google+: not as popular, but easy to syndicate to
- RSS: An old standby technology, and useful to send the information to other web sites and applications.
Future channels under consideration include a custom built app, and SMS. When funding is available we will consider these.
The power of Social Media takes over at this point. My experience with Social Media and SAR events is that information spreads quickly through interested parties. We hope that by using the #BCSilverAlert hashtag, people can pay attention to the alerts that are most local to them. We also hope that re-tweeting and re-posting will spread the word quickly. We’re looking at a way to make sure the picture stays attached to the post so it’s there for reference.
One hour later, at 16:30 we had our first live test of the system; the Richmond RCMP posted an alert on their web site about a missing elderly man with dementia on a bike in Richmond. We got an email a minute later, and the post was live on our site soon after that.
— Richmond RCMP (@RichmondRCMP) September 11, 2014
At 22:33 we got verification from the RCMP that he had been found.
— Richmond RCMP (@RichmondRCMP) September 12, 2014
The system worked – the post was syndicated with pictures. Now all we need is people to follow the feed.
So what do you think? Is the Silver Alert useful? How could we improve it? Would love to know what you think.
If anyone is interested in implementing this in their own communities, don’t hesitate to contact me.