Politics & Government

Is ‘Silver Alert’ needed to find missing seniors faster? Officials disagree

The state’s current program for finding missing people wasn’t enough to locate Patrick O’Neil’s elderly mother when she disappeared in July.

The 89-year-old was in the early stages of dementia when she took a wrong turn on a trip to the Everett Mall. She was found dead the next month in her car, her body so badly decomposed that authorities couldn’t determine a cause of death.

“My mother deserved better,” O’Neil, an Olympia resident, said.

He is among the supporters of a proposal to establish a “silver alert” program to help locate lost seniors.

They have found a backer in Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, who is sponsoring House Bill 1021 to require the Washington State Patrol to create and implement a system similar to Amber Alerts for abducted children.

Silver alerts would be used for people ages 65 and older with Alzheimer’s, dementia or similar conditions.

But critics of the proposal are questioning why another alert system is needed, when the the state’s Endangered Missing Person Advisory already can get word out about missing seniors.

That EMPA system was used last week to find a missing 92-year-old Puyallup-area man, who reportedly shows early signs of dementia. The man had been gone from his home from several days before alerts posted on signs along Interstate 5 helped a state trooper locate him south of Monroe.

Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said he doesn’t see a strong need for a silver alert system since the EMPA has proved effective.

“The equipment, the tools, the cooperation and everything is already in place,” Troyer said.

The State Patrol opposes the creation of a silver alert system for the same reasons.

Supporters defend their proposal as a way to get messages about missing seniors out faster and to a broader audience than just those signed up for voluntary alerts on the EMPA system.

Under the bill, a law enforcement agency could request a silver alert for a missing person within 72 hours of their disappearance if there is sufficient information to help the public assist in locating them.

Appleton said she envisions silver alerts showing up nearly instantaneously on phones, radios, TVs and freeway signs, much like Amber Alerts.

But there could be a snag. Mark Allen, president and CEO of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters, said the Federal Communications Commission limits what can be broadcast through the national warning system. And no states with silver alert programs have their alerts broadcast the way Amber Alerts are.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that a silver alert will start ringing your radio like an Amber Alert,” Allen said.

Appleton said she thinks Washington can work out an agreement with the FCC to get the silver alert widely broadcast, though her bill doesn’t address that issue.

O’Neil said the EMPA wasn’t much help in his mother’s case. Leads came instead from social media, with the family learning via Facebook that his mother had stopped in Marysville for directions, he said.

He said the state should be doing everything it can to find seniors who wander away from their homes or care facilities.

“(A silver alert system) seems to be at least a different way to approach it that might have rendered a different outcome,” he said.