WOONSOCKET – When it seemed an elderly woman might have passed out in the oppressive heat mid-way through a conversation with a radio talk-show host Friday morning, city officials and police feared the worst as they embarked on a frantic search for the unidentified caller.
But the high drama ended on a note of relief after police located the woman via an emergency subpoena for phone records from Cox Communications.
The happy ending came at a nursing home on Rhodes Avenue shortly before 2 p.m. Friday, several hours after the search began. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said the woman was safe and resting comfortably in her room at the Friendly Home when police found her.
“I'm glad we found her safe and sound,” the mayor said. “It was entirely well worth the effort because I would have hated for it to have turned out some other way.”
The woman was 76 years old, police said, but her identity was not released.
The drama began to unfold about 8 a.m. when the woman called a talk-radio program on WOON-1240 hosted by Dave Richards, the station manager. Richards had been on the air talking about the high heat and humidity, which had prompted the National Weather Service to declare an excessive heat watch in the area. The watch kicks in when the heat index makes it feel like 105 degrees or more outside – perilously hot.
Richards said he grew concerned when the woman told him she was having trouble with her fan and that she was housebound. It was a difficult conversation, he said, because the woman was hard of hearing and “she seemed a little disoriented,” but she managed to convey her whereabouts in the Park Avenue area.
Richards said he was in the process of trying to obtain more information from the woman so that he could get her some help “when she stopped talking and the phone went dead.”
The big question was why.
“I didn't know,” said Richards. “It could have been anything. She could have passed out.”
Fontaine said the circumstances were so alarming he and two other workers at City Hall – Administrative Secretary Arianne Pare and Economic Development Aide Linda Plays – hastily began trying to locate the woman by calling a lengthy list of telephone numbers generated from voting records. They narrowed the list as much as possible by focusing only on elderly women who live on Park Avenue.
Before obtaining the subpoena, Fontaine said the police also generated a “reverse 911” dragnet of all homes in the Park Avenue area in attempts to locate the woman. The hope was that one of the calls would reach the woman they were seeking or that one of her neighbors would be alerted and check on the woman.
For most criminal procedures, getting a subpoena for phone records from a public utility can be a time-consuming operation because the paperwork has to be signed by a judge.
The police leapfrogged over all the red tape by using a procedure that compels the communications company to turn over records quickly in cases where someone's health is at stake, said Detective Lt. Eugene Jalette, spokesman for the police.
“What we do is get an emergency subpoena so we can get the number right away,” he said.