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A Cornwall resident woke up to a nightmare Thursday morning, Jan. 12 – his wife, who suffers from dementia, had gone missing.
Cornwall Borough Police Officer Greg Bender said that around approximately 1 a.m., the woman apparently left her house in the Northgate development of Alden Place.
Bender said that the husband had gone to bed while his wife was still awake, only to rise around 4 a.m. and find her missing.
Bender said that the immediate response of police in these situations is to cover the area and determine what other agencies should be involved, depending on the area. Because the woman had been gone for at least a few hours by the time police were involved, the request went out through county dispatch for additional support.
County dispatch logs show that requests were first made for search and rescue assistance shortly after 6:30 a.m.
Ready to pick up the call was Special Unit 66 Search & Rescue, a 501(c)3 K9 search team organized by Mark Sallada, founder of Annville’s 911 Rapid Response and a former police officer himself.
Sallada said that Special Unit 66 is not so different than any fire department around the world, save for the fact that it doesn’t receive funding from the county or local municipalities.
The search team staged in the neighborhood along with EMS from First Aid & Safety Patrol. In addition to the human volunteers, three of the group’s highly-trained search-and-rescue dogs (called K9s) were there to lead the search – K9s Neeka, Raven, and Alfie.
Sallada said that the missing woman’s husband was able to provide one of his wife’s shirts to the dogs to establish her scent. The team always starts its searches from wherever a missing individual was last seen, whether that was an hour ago or six hours ago – or longer.
The search-and-rescue dogs were able to track her whereabouts and where she walked. Sallada noted Neeka’s ability to read “negatives” – when a change in direction is detected – helping to establish the woman’s true path of travel.
“She walked all over the place,” said Sallada. “Our track was 1.2 miles but she was less than a quarter mile away from the place.”
In search-and-rescue missions like this, multiple dogs are used to provide additional verification and redundancy – a necessity given the inability to communicate with these essential canine colleagues.
Neeka, a dog trained by Sallada himself, led off the search, followed by Raven about 20 to 30 minutes later. Within minutes of Raven heading out in the same direction, Neeka was able to locate the woman, said Sallada.
The woman was found sitting in a yard within the Northgate development and very cold, said Bender. She was then taken to WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital, where she was checked out, he said, adding that it sounds like she’ll be OK.
“She’s very lucky that she was found,” said Bender.
Cornwall Borough police and Special Unit 66 were joined at the scene by Mount Gretna and Campbelltown fire departments, which both brought UTVs, as well as South Lebanon Fire.
Sallada said that his advice to individuals who may fear a similar situation due to a loved one suffering from dementia or a similar affliction should consider doing two things:
- Set up a door chime/alarm that can alert you if an exterior door is opened – even if you are in deep slumber. Adding alarms on all your doors loud enough to wake you up would be a smart idea, said Sallada, while also warning against extra locks or other door barriers which could create their own safety risks in the event of a fire.
- Consider getting a small pendant with a GPS tracker. These can be worn as a necklace or other form factors and can be indispensable for locating individuals in these situations, as GPS can provide a precise location to concentrate search efforts.
Sallada noted that Special Unit 66 Search & Rescue relies on donations to sustain its life-saving mission. Donation options, including raffle tickets, and other information on the group can be found at SearchTeam66.org. In addition to the search-and-rescue dogs and their care and training, the team also maintains a command trailer and a UTV which expand their capacity to deploy where needed.
As for Special Unit 66, there’s no rest for the weary.
“We have training tonight,” said Sallada.
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