Families with special-needs children can now make Tavares police aware

‘Operation Aware’ bracelets alert police, citizens about special needs

TAVARES, Fla. – A Lake County police department is evolving to help its citizens with special needs, especially the most precious ones.

After a huge spike in Alzheimer’s-related disappearances, the new chief at the Tavares Police Department promised she would start handing out special bracelets with encoded information so police can respond better and with sensitivity.

“Operation Aware” is now up and running and 7-year-old Theo Fanelli is one of the first to participate.

Little Theo loves to explore. But that makes mom Jenna Fanelli a little nervous.

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“He’s walked away from us at festivals before and it’s panic-inducing,” Jenna said. “Even moreso now that he has epilepsy. When Theo was four he was diagnosed with epilepsy. So he’s had every kind of seizure you could have. Now we deal with fear-based seizures. So if he becomes scared, he will have, well, we call them episodes, but seizures. He could have up to 50 of them a day.”

What helps is Officer Courtney Bannick and a blue bracelet she’s put around Theo’s wrist.

The bracelet contains a QR code that police can scan to reveal information that Fanelli submitted about Theo.

[INSIDER EXTRA: Hear more from Jenna Fanelli about how Operation Aware helps her child]

“They have all of his medical information,” Fanelli said. “They have our contact information. They know all about his epilepsy. They have what to do, what not to do with him, what medications he takes, his allergies. They have everything. So at the push of a button, they’re able to scan his blue band and access all of that information.”

Officer Bannick and Detective Courtney Sullivan, together, are heading up Operation Aware at the Tavares Police Dept.

“We have families that are sensitive to lights, we can’t respond with lights,” Sullivan said. “Or we have some families that are frustrated, members who are autistic, and when they get frustrated and can’t communicate, there’s the potential for what others might say is volatile behavior. But if we know they might behave like that, we can respond in a fashion that’s going to benefit everyone.”

Officer Bannick usually brings the bracelets to people’s homes to put them on and that’s on purpose.

“If we respond for a call for service, that’s what they’re going to see, what we’re wearing — our tactical vests and uniforms,” Sullivan said.

The bracelets tell the public to call the Tavares Police Dept. if they come across someone like Theo wearing one. And through the QR code, they also tell police exactly what to expect, how to respond, what medication someone might need and even what to say.

“Anything to calm them down, to say things like, ‘hey mommy is coming, mommy is coming,’ we’ve had that notated,” Sullivan said. “So things like that, that can de-escalate a situation instead of an escalated scenario.”

Operation Aware is for anyone who needs a different kind of response from police.

You can sign up for Operation Aware on the Tavares website.

Sullivan said Operation Aware has also been extremely useful in quickly locating missing persons. If they have the bracelet, the police dept. already has all of the missing person’s information, including their picture.

Normally detectives have to meet with the family of the missing person to obtain the personal information before they can share the case with surrounding law enforcement agencies to look for that person, Sullivan said. That process alone could take hours.

Tavares PD has already joined forces with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office’s Operation Aware because Sullivan said the agency was getting many interested calls about Operation Aware from outside of its jurisdiction.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.