Police, senior home reflect on search effortA scary situation turned out to have a happy ending for everyone involved last week when a search for an elderly woman reported to be missing from her assisted living facility was called off when she was found the next morning sleeping in another resident’s room safe and unharmed.
By: Hank Long, Woodbury Bulletin
A scary situation turned out to have a happy ending for everyone involved last week when a search for an elderly woman reported to be missing from her assisted living facility was called off when she was found the next morning sleeping in another resident’s room safe and unharmed.
But in the process, more than three dozen Woodbury Public Safety Department police officers and firefighters spent about 12 hours searching for the woman, who officials at Woodbury Estates said suffers from dementia and is living in a memory care unit at the facility. The State Patrol also assisted in the effort.
Woodbury Public Safety officials said they realize the significant hours contributed to the search by police and firefighters, but said the effort was worth it even after it was discovered the woman had never left the facility.
“Time is obviously of the essence in a situation where you believe someone is missing,” said Lee Vague, director for the Woodbury Public Safety. “Any time we have a missing person report we want to act quickly.”
And that was the case when police received the report of the missing woman around 9:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3.
According to Woodbury Estates officials the facility, located on the northeast corner of Woodlane and Lake drives, does have a policy for when a resident is believed to be missing and staff did follow it the evening the woman was reported missing.
Staff performed their own search and then called police.
Police and staff then conducted a search of the eight-room memory care unit and the 64-unit residence, said Greg Anderson, campus administrator for Woodbury Estates.
Staff performed a headcount of the residents, most of whom were sleeping at the time the woman was reported missing.
A teaching moment
So just how did staff and police miss the woman, who the next morning was found in another resident’s room sleeping and unharmed?
Police officials said it was an honest mistake by Woodbury Estates staffers conducting the headcount. Campus administrator Anderson said it was a unique circumstance that provided for a teaching moment about how to better conduct headcounts in the future should a similar situation ever occur.
When staff conducted the headcount most residents were sleeping. Anderson said the police and staff were trying to be as respectful to residents as possible as they searched the building and looked at the nameplate at the entry to each apartment unit and then flipped on the light to make sure the residents were accounted for.
When staff came to the room where the missing woman was eventually found the next morning they saw two nameplates outside the door. A staff member flipped on the light and saw two people sleeping in the bedroom and under the covers, Anderson said. The staff member didn’t realize the room belonged to a male resident whose wife had recently died, Anderson said. After his wife’s death the male resident asked staff to keep her nameplate on the front door. Anderson said the woman who went missing when she wandered into the one room where she was overlooked because of the situation with the nameplates.
“One of the things we’ve discussed after this event is that if something like this ever happens again we will wake up the residents,” Anderson said. “I think we realized after the fact that if we had done that we could have located (the reportedly missing resident) much sooner.”
Such an adjustment would have allowed the public safety department to end its search much sooner, Vague said.
“It turns out she had never left the residence, but we had to go with the best information we had at the time,” Vague said.
“When you have a vulnerable adult who was believed to have wandered off the premises, we knew she was likely in danger. And because that was the best information we had at the time I believe we did the right thing by using the level of resources we did.”
Pouring resources into search
During the overnight search, public safety team leaders paged off-duty officers and paid, on-call firefighters to help participate in the efforts to search for the woman, who although she had memory loss issues, was described by facility staff as very mobile, said Woodbury Police Capt. Steve Wills.
Police and firefighters searched for the woman in parks and trails not far from the facility, which is adjacent to Woodbury High School and Ojibway Park. Anderson said the woman is very mobile and often takes walks with her husband and family members near the residence.
Police used their search dogs to track the possible route the woman may have taken to leave the facility and called in assistance from the state patrol’s canine team.
The search effort also received assistance from a State Patrol helicopter.
“I think in situations like that you can always use more resources,” Capt. Wills said. “We had some people that had to pull away from the search during the night, so it was very helpful to have the state patrol assistance and help from our on-call firefighters.”
Police also used the television and radio media in hopes that it may help spread the message to residents who lived not far from the facility to be on the lookout for the woman.
Despite the heavy use of internal resources during the search, Wills said the public safety department was able to perform its usual overnight patrol duties, but did so by calling on extra officers while the search for the reportedly missing woman was being conducted.
Vague said the search operation provided an opportunity for the Woodbury Public Safety Department to fine tune its search and rescue operations.
“You don’t get to perform these types of operations to this extent very often, so with this case we saw that we know how to mobilize a search pretty quickly and effectively,” Vague said. “Looking back on it there was probably some people that stayed up all night long and were pretty tired afterward, but the fact that we had a happy ending is what mattered in the end.”
Long can be reached at email@example.com