Chattanooga's police and fire departments partnered with the Chattanooga Autism Center to develop a registry for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities first responders can access.
Take Me Home is a free program provided by the Chattanooga Police Department that allows family members and legal guardians to file emergency contact information, a detailed physical description and a photo, saving valuable time if the person is found alone or reported missing.
"I have friends whose kids have disappeared, and this tool for law enforcement will allow them to see who they're looking for," said Roddey Coe, member of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.
"If officers approach someone on the street who may be unable to communicate because of autism, dementia, Alzheimer's — anything that can take away somebody's ability to speak or tell them where they may be — this will allow them to pull up a picture and take that person home instead of to a jail cell."
Coe said this issue is dear to his heart because he has an 11-year-old son with autism, and he hopes this tool will allow officers to quickly gather important information on some of the people with whom they interact.
Skyler Phillips, a captain in the Chattanooga Fire Department who has helped get Take Me Home off the ground, said he expects it will save lives.
"The need is unreal. In the autism community specifically, a major aspect of autism is wandering or eloping. People have to take showers, people have to cook, they have to take care of their other kids, so you turn your back, and someone disappears," he said.
"What the hope is is that a police officer will find this person first or at least someone will call the police. If the person doesn't have the ability to tell them where they live or doesn't have the ability to give them their name or their address, that's where this comes in."
Police officers also are excited about the prospects of Take Me Home. Lt. Anthony Easter said it's a "step in the right direction" and could be an invaluable resource in the countless interactions police have with different segments of the public.
"So many times officers do come in contact with a person with a disability or a person that's nonverbal or an elderly person or vulnerable adult that cannot remember where they live, where they work, their name, date of birth," he said. "They don't have an ID or a driver's license — how can we help them? How can we help them get home?"
"No one's committed a crime, no one is in trouble and we definitely want to de-escalate any situation where we are called. We don't want to be part of the problem. We want to be a solution to the problem."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.