Given the crowds, security demands and canceled flights, airports are often challenging places for everyone. For travelers with intellectual or developmental conditions, memory loss or mental health issues, however, navigating an airport can be daunting and even dangerous.
But on Wednesday, officials at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport announced that its police department is deploying new technology — the Vitals App — to make the travel experience easier for passengers with mental or physical challenges.
MSP is the first airport in the United States to adopt the technology, which is being used by more than 50 law enforcement agencies nationwide, including at least two dozen in the Twin Cities metro area.
Here's how it works: A person with physical, behavioral, mental or developmental conditions, or their caregiver, downloads the app and creates a profile that includes a photo, behavior triggers, current medications, and de-escalation cues and techniques.
The app's Bluetooth feature will ping airport police officers when they're within 80 feet of the individual with the app. Or the person may carry a small Bluetooth transmitter called a "beacon" — a keychain, necklace, debit card or bracelet token instead of a phone —that alerts officers in the same manner. If the individual has a crisis, police will know immediately what the problem is and how to respond.
Janeé Harteau, president and CEO of Twin Cities-based Vitals Aware Services, called the technology a "game-changer" at Wednesday's news conference.
Harteau, the former Minneapolis police chief, said the technology provides "a voice and independence to the millions of people needing advocacy, transparency and, most importantly, a safer outcome when they face an emergency situation."
For example, Harteau said it's difficult for officers and emergency responders to tell if someone is having a diabetic episode or merely intoxicated.
"It takes the guesswork out of a situation," she said. "Sometimes just knowing someone's name is a game-changer."
Airport Police Sgt. Keith Boser said officers "can't wait" for the technology to fully roll out at MSP by mid-July. Deputy Chief Craig Olson said the app helps "create a sense of trust, ease and safety for all individuals while traveling."
The Vitals App also provides contact information for first responders so they may reach a caregiver who can video chat at the scene to help calm a person in crisis.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which owns and operates MSP, pays Vitals Aware Services about $10,000 a year for the service, according to spokesman Jeff Lea. The cost of the app begins at $2.99 a month; so far more than 6,000 people have profiles on the app, according to the company.
The Vitals App is commonly used by adult children whose parents have dementia or memory issues, and by parents of children with autism. Vitals Aware Services was founded in partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota in August 2017.