How Wheeling police are working to better assist nonverbal residents
A new Wheeling Police Department program aims to help officers and firefighters better assist people who have limited or no verbal skills because of autism, dementia or other health issues.
The program is called "Return Home Safe." A key element is a colored, silicone wristband with a number corresponding to a file of information about the wearer in a Wheeling police database. The bands are imprinted with the phrases "Wheeling Police" and "Return Home Safe."
Because some people with sensory issues can't tolerate wristbands, every participant also will be issued a plastic identification card containing a photograph, physical characteristics, emergency numbers and other data.
The effort is especially intended for nonverbal people who might walk away from home without supervision. But the data also can help first responders who encounter nonverbal people during emergencies and routine calls.
"Having a working knowledge of those we serve will make these interactions easier for responding members of the police and fire department," said Wheeling police Sgt. Richard Giltner, who created the program. "We think this is something that will be beneficial to everyone."
Giltner was inspired by his son Liam, who is disabled and nonverbal.
"He suffers from many different issues that would be hard to identify in an emergency situation," Giltner explained. "Police department interactions with those with special needs have become increasingly more common, and as in everything that we do, we can always be better."
Children and adults can participate. Kids are given green wristbands and adults get blue bands.
Participants also get color-coordinated drawstring bags containing a package of sensory beads an agitated person can rub to soothe themselves. But the bags serve another purpose, too.
"The participants may not always be wearing the bracelet ... but if an officer were to see the bag, they would know they are part of the program," Giltner said.
The database will include a person's name, physical characteristics, medical diagnoses, verbal ability, emergency contact information, medications, allergies and more.
The system will note if they're attracted to water, how they respond to being touched, if they're provoked by loud noises or flashing lights, and if they have favorite toys or special interests that can calm them when upset.
"(It's) anything you can think of that would be helpful to police," Giltner said.
Police encounter people with autism and dementia more frequently than those with other disabilities, Giltner said, but participation isn't limited to those diagnoses.
Only Wheeling police officers and firefighters have direct access to the database. The department will share information with other agencies inquiring about a person with a bracelet or card.
Wheeling Deputy Fire Chief Steve Mella said his team looks forward to using the information in the field. He called the program "incredibly helpful."
"Any information we can get on a patient ... helps us with proper treatment and transport," Mella said. "This program will help both departments take better care of our residents."
When crafting the project, Giltner took guidance from similar programs across the country. Barry C. Taylor, vice president of the Chicago-based advocacy group Equip for Equality's civil rights team, said it reminds him of Chicago's voluntary registry for people who may need extra assistance in an emergency because of disabilities.
Some critics said it potentially disclosed a person's vulnerabilities, Taylor said, but overall it was seen as a good thing for people who wanted that level of support.
Wheeling police are starting with 500 bracelets. The personalized cards will be manufactured in-house as needed.