When 75-year-old Bobby Baker went missing in Lancaster County earlier this month, state and local authorities activated a statewide notification, sending an email blast to dozens of media outlets with descriptions and pictures of Baker and his red truck. Within 24 hours, Baker was found – safe – and was on his way home with family.
The advisory sent out by the State Law Enforcement Division was one of four that SLED has pushed out this year for missing people who are elderly or are believed to be suffering from dementia or some other cognitive impairment. Such notices, typically referred to in other states as Silver Alerts, are known in South Carolina as “missing endangered person advisories.”
“It’s essentially the same system other states have, it just goes by Endangered Person Notification System,” said Thom Berry, a spokesman for SLED, which oversees the Missing Persons Information Center and the issuance of alerts.
So why don’t we call the alerts Silver Alerts here in South Carolina?
“We go by what the Legislature approved,” Berry said. “That’s why we call it what we do.”
The General Assembly enacted the system with a 2010 law to quickly disseminate information about lost or missing people who are believed to be suffering from dementia or other cognitive impairments. Between 2014 and 2016, SLED issued seven such alerts, Berry said.
State Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, was a sponsor on the bill signed into law in 2010 but had earlier introduced a similar bill to create a “Silver Alert System.”
“One of my constituents had Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he actually left on his own, got in his car and drove into Georgia,” Dillard said. “They were able to track him down and bring him back, and he was not harmed. As a freshman legislator not knowing a lot about the process, the bill was very personal to me.”
Dillard was unsure why the state adopted the language it did but said having similar language to other states would be helpful when someone crosses state lines, as her constituent did.
“When you have an emergency situation, it’s important to have compatibility,” she said. “If there’s a Silver Alert in Georgia, I thought there should be a Silver Alert in South Carolina.
“When you say ‘AMBER Alert,’ people know we’re talking about a child of a certain age. When you say ‘Silver Alert,’ you’re talking about a senior citizen.”
An estimated 86,000 people in South Carolina have Alzheimer’s, according to Beth Sulkowski, vice president of communications and advocacy for the South Carolina chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which supported the creation of the notification system. That number is expected to reach 120,000 by 2025, she said.
Wandering is common among people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, according Sulkowski. Six out of 10 people with dementia will wander, even with the most diligent caregiver, she said.
“I think when the bill was passed, there was some concern it would dilute the effectiveness of the public’s response to the alerts,” she said. “It may be a good time to evaluate whether this would be a good opportunity to identify this alert system in a similar way so the public would have a greater understanding of the system and how to respond to it.”
South Carolina already issues AMBER Alerts to relay critical information about an abducted child, and Blue Alerts for someone suspected of killing, injuring or abducting a law enforcement officer. The S.C. Broadcasters Association was one of several agencies, including police agencies and the Department of Transportation, to craft the procedures for disseminating information when those alerts are issued. If needed, the state also can broadcast the person’s information on digital marquees along the interstates, though Sulkowski said the need seldom arises.
“The idea was, anytime an AMBER Alert is issued, it was a big deal,” said Rich O’Dell, president and general manager of WLTX News 19 in Columbia and chairman of the association’s AMBER Alert committee.
The main difference between AMBER Alerts and endangered person notifications, O’Dell said, is that networks do not push the information for three hours for endangered person notifications as with AMBER Alerts. But as technology advances, media outlets have more ways to put out information about a missing person in the critical hours after they go missing, he said, including social media, text and email alerts and push notifications.
“I don’t know if there would be any difference at all,” he said of changing the phrasing of South Carolina’s notifications. “I don’t want to dilute the importance of AMBER.”
Krystal Toney’s mother, 65-year-old Carole Savage, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she wandered away before a day trip to the Spartanburg County fair with her senior care center last October.
“My initial thought was panic,” said Toney, 41, who works in senior care and is familiar with the behaviors of people with dementia. “I knew her walking skills were spot on.”
Toney found her mother hours later, on the front porch of the home where she had lived as a teenager, several miles from her senior care center. The Endangered Person Notification System was not activated, but Spartanburg police officers and county deputies helped in the search, Toney said. A TV reporter in Spartanburg also shared Savage’s information and picture on her Facebook page.
“I do think calling it a Silver Alert is going to be a different mindset,” Toney said of the notification system. “Some would argue you expect them to try harder and be faster. I think it’s going to open up the minds of someone of what you’re looking for.”