Town of Fairfield police officer Michael Stahl ’10 collaborates with the School of Engineering to develop nationwide model for safety communications.

Town of Fairfield police officer Michael Stahl ’10  collaborates with the School of Engineering to develop  nationwide model for safety communications.

When Michael C. Stahl ’10 joined the Town of Fairfield’s police department four years ago, he was hoping to make a difference. Little did the communication major know that he’d soon be playing a leading role in helping those with autism and alzheimer’s, and other individuals predisposed to wandering.

Now, thanks to some tech-savvy assistance from the School of Engineering, Stahl’s idea to create a database for missing persons with special needs has become a reality that should serve as inspiration for communities nationwide.

It’s hard to pinpoint what inspired Stahl, 26, to become a police officer. He has always looked up to and respected police officers, most notably his grandfather, James Gormley, who served over 28 years with the Montville Township, New Jersey Police Department. Stahl’s vocation was also fostered by the call to be “men and women for others.”

“Whether I was discussing it in a core curriculum course or attending one of the many fundraising events, the Fairfield University community really taught me what it meant to think about others in my daily life,” said the Boonton Township, N.J. native. “For me, being a police officer is one more example of how I try to live my life by this Jesuit ideal.”

Two jobs paved the way for an easy transition from undergraduate to the police force: He assisted the Wildwood, New Jersey police department during summer breaks, and served as a student dispatcher for the Fairfield University Department of Public Safety.

There is a lot about law enforcement that one learns on the job, he said, especially from the calls involving people in distress.

Take a call that came in one stormy night several years ago: About 2 a.m., an autistic teenage boy was found in Fairfield barefoot, soaking wet and unable to communicate. The officers spent several hours attempting to identify him, but he couldn’t speak or write. To ensure his safety, officers transported the boy to a hospital and were left to wait for a frantic 911 call to police from his family to identify the youth. That call came in about 6 a.m. after his panicked mother realized he was missing. The boy was reunited with her soon afterwards.

The incident inspired Stahl to change things. He thought, what if there was a database where Fairfield residents could register family members who have dementia, autism and other challenges that may make them prone to wandering. The database would also be vital for children and adults unable to speak or with memory impairment, Stahl envisioned. That way, if police officers found such individuals, they could reunite them with their families quickly, sparing people from heart-stopping worry.

He soon turned to his alma mater for help.

Friend Cath Borgman, Director of Career Planning, put him in touch with Dr. Wook-Sung Yoo, chair of software engineering in the School of Engineering. Dr. Yoo was immediately intrigued by the concept and brought it to his talented graduate students, Michael Marrero ’13 and Ebenezer Rodriquez Vidal ’13. The trio of engineers then built a software program that became to be known as the SafeReturn Network, which got up and running in 2014.

Fairfield residents may register family members they are concerned about with the SafeRetun Network — including photographs, contact information and major details about loved ones that could help to identify them. In the event a police officer encounters someone who is unable to communicate, he or she is able to open a gallery of photographs in a patrol car or desktop computer. Those photos can be filtered based on physical characteristics and subsequently matched with the person standing in front of the officer. The database also can help with Amber or Silver alerts.

“We were very happy to get involved and work on this project to help the community,” said Dr. Yoo. “The students brought a lot of enthusiasm to it, and made it their capstone project, a major endeavor prior to graduation.”

While working on SafeReturn, Stahl found that the courses he took as a communication major and management minor informed his decisions.
“Having knowledge in communication and management keeps me constantly thinking about ways that I can help improve the relationships between the department and the community,” he said.

Stahl is also grateful to Fairfield because it is the place where he met his wife, Amy (Dorval) Stahl ’07. Other Stags in his life include his father, Michael Stahl Sr. ’84; sister Erin Stahl ’11; and father-in-law, Andre Dorval ’73.

“Fairfield University taught me the importance of relationships and what many alumni, including myself, call the Fairfield Family,” he said. “Without the support of many people at Fairfield, the SafeReturn program would still only be an idea.”