Using the same technology that enables transportation managers to track the location of school buses, it’s conceivable that educators some day might use special GPS-enabled bracelets to monitor the whereabouts of students, such as on a class field trip.
For now, the devices are too costly for most schools to consider. But given the recent spate of high-profile child abductions across the nation, cost isn’t deterring some parents from purchasing the gadgets.
Eric Wasman, a mortgage broker from Redwood City, Calif., now double-bolts his front doors and shuts his windows even on hot nights. And soon, he’ll arm his two young daughters, ages 4 and 2, with high-tech bracelets he hopes will keep them safer and buy him some peace of mind.
The child locator sold by Wherify Wireless Inc. is among a growing number of satellite-based products targeting worried parents.
Worn like an oversized wristwatch, the much-hyped device lets parents track their children’s whereabouts via the internet or by phone. Due to be released next month in kid-friendly “Galactic Blue” and “Cosmic Purple,” the 3-ounce locators are part Lojack, part pager, part baby sitter.
Experts on missing children warn that such devices are not foolproof and could give parents a false sense of security.
“Parents need to realize what these devices can and cannot do,” said Tina Schwartz of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It doesn’t take the place of safety education and line-of-sight supervision.”
Whether they are worrywarts or justifiably concerned, “parents need to realize it’s a supplemental and not a primary means for keeping your child safe,” she added.
Wasman understands the Wherify child locator isn’t guaranteed to protect his children, but he’s willing to pay $800 for a pair and about $30 in monthly service fees.
“When it comes to your kids, you can’t be too careful,” he said. “And the worst thing is just not knowing.”
Wherify’s GPS Personal Locator combines global positioning system satellite and digital wireless technologies to pinpoint a wearer’s position within a few feet, the company says.
Parents can view satellite or street maps on Wherify’s web site or call an 800 number, day or night, to obtain their kids’ location and movements within a minute.
A “bread crumb” mode lets parents preset times for tracking. The monitoring service would contact the parent by phone, pager, or fax if the child isn’t at the right place.
In a kidnapping or other worst-case scenario, the wearer can contact 911 by pressing two buttons.
The locator, marketed for children ages 4 to 11, has a built-in numeric pager and is made of water- and cut-resistant material.
Parents lock the bracelet onto their children’s wrists and can unlock it by key or remotely. Cutting or forcibly removing the band would activate an alarm for the company’s emergency operators.
Because the product relies on satellite technology, there may be some spots, such as underground or inside concrete buildings, where the monitoring service will fail to get a bearing.
But the company says the device should work in most homes and buildings, urban canyons, and dense forests. If not, Wherify would be able to trace the last-known location.
The device uses “enhanced GPS,” which combines GPS and cellular technology to pinpoint a location, reportedly allowing it to work inside buildings and in other areas typically challenging for traditional GPS.
Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Wherify, which spent four years developing the locator and tracking service, claims thousands of parents signed its customer wait list just within the past month.
Similar people trackers are offered by Applied Digital Solutions and other companies, but Wherify’s locatordesigned specifically for childrenhas garnered industry awards and the most publicity.
Endorsers include Oprah Winfrey and Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old, Polly, was abducted from her bedroom and killed in 1993.
Wherify president Timothy Neher came up with the idea after he temporarily lost sight of his niece and nephew at a zoo. He hopes the device also would deter pedophiles and perpetrators and aid police when needed.
Although abductions by strangers are on the decline, according to FBI statistics, recent cases have shaken parents because most of the victims were snatched from inside or near their homes.
“I’ve probably had hundreds of phone calls and eMails on these tracking products over the past six months,” said Randy Smith, founder of the Lost Children’s Network.
He considers the technology “a great way for a working parent to be at the office and see if little Sally made it to day care by the shuttle.”
Parents concerned about abductions by other family members, which account for the vast majority of missing children cases, also are interested in such devices, he said.
Richard Winn, a Pine Grove, Pa., father of 9- and 6-year old girls, has been waiting for a child location gadget for years.
An avid fisherman, he paid almost $900 for a GPS system to help his boat find his best fishing spots. If GPS is used for boats and cars, as well as for tracking pets and felons under house arrest, he wondered, why not for children?
He plans to purchase two locator bracelets, using them as a tool and “not a crutch” to verify, for instance, that his daughter riding her bike to a friend’s house arrives safely.
“I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but there are real threats out there,” Winn said. “And I’m not shallow-minded enough to think it can’t happen to me.”
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Applied Digital Solutions
Lost Children’s Network