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Originally published January 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 17, 2007 at 5:48 PM

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Watch-sized transmitter may help lost hikers

A search-and-rescue group's wristwatch-size radio transmitters have helped track missing Alzheimer's patients and autistic children. Now the group wants to offer the technology to help find lost hikers.

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. – A search-and-rescue group's wristwatch-size radio transmitters have helped track missing Alzheimer's patients and autistic children. Now the group wants to offer the technology to help find lost hikers.

The National Park Service has agreed to experiment with Project Lifesaver International's transmitters, although officials say electronic devices often provide a false sense of security.

The transmitters are to be demonstrated for park service officials on Alaska's Mount McKinley in the next few months. Mount McKinley's extreme conditions — it's the tallest mountain in North America — make it an attractive spot to experiment with the equipment, said Kathryn Healey-Flores, a program development officer at Project Lifesaver.

The group started providing the transmitters in 1999 to police departments and emergency agencies in and around the city of Chesapeake. Sales have expanded to 530 agencies in 40 states and Canada.

Autistic children and other dependents are outfitted with a wristband or an ankle bracelet that sends out a radio pulse every second, project spokesman Jay Smith said.

Smith said the radio signals can be read from 2,500 feet in the air. They also don't require satellite technology and have a 45-day battery.

If someone wanders away from home, a caregiver calls an 800 number, and searchers are often able to find the missing person within minutes using a tracker, he said.

"We find most people within a mile of their house," said Mike Catron, a police officer in Virginia's Chesterfield County.

Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit based in Chesapeake, believes that hikers going into treacherous terrain during winter months could be required to rent the equipment at a trailhead Park Service station. If hikers become lost, or aren't heard from for several days, searchers could track the radio signals to narrow down a search area.

Using electronic devices for wilderness search and rescue would save valuable time, as well as public money, said Healey-Flores. "The dollars spent on search and rescue can be prohibitive," she said.

While the National Park Service has agreed to experiment with the device, it will only offer them to forest rangers, said Dan Portbriand, the park service's branch chief for emergency services. It would complement other electronic devices, since there are often blackout spots in cell-phone or two-way radio coverage, he said.

"This is not a stand-alone device," he said. "Should this be used in place of a radio? Not a good idea."

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The technology behind Project Lifesaver's radio transmitter has been around for years and originally was used to track wildlife. These days there are personal locater beacons, portable satellite phones and devices that use the Global Positioning System — not to mention the growing prevalence of cell phones.

Portbriand, who oversees search and rescue for 400 federal parks, said park service officials have been concerned that new developments in personal technology are leading people to take more extreme risks in the wild.

"People get this false sense of security that all you have to do is push a button," Portbriand said. "But it should not replace common sense."

Park service officials said the radio transmitters couldn't have prevented a tragedy like the one on Oregon's Mount Hood last month, in which one hiker was found dead and two went missing after a week of blizzard storms on the mountain's treacherous north side.

The Mount Hood hikers had cell phones, and that helped in alerting rescuers. "That was all fine and dandy," Portbriand said. "But they still couldn't get up there for a five days because of the weather."

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