If an autistic child wanders away from his caregiver and gets lost, a traditional search can last hours or even days. The same goes for adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Project Lifesaver offers a hi-tech but simple solution.
Participants wear a small transmitter on their wrists or ankles, almost as they would a wristwatch. If they get lost, a public safety agency can use a receiver to track the transmitter’s frequency, bringing them right to the missing individual, often within minutes.
The Caroline County Sheriff’s Office has been involved with Project Lifesaver International since 2006. Nearly 30 local individuals are enrolled through the Sheriff’s Office.
Sgt. K.H. Eichenmiller said the program offers families peace of mind.
“It’s just that one more little bit of relief that they have,” he said. “Hopefully we don’t have to use it, but if it is, then we know it’s a proven technology and it works.”
Project Lifesaver technology has been used to find 2,797 clients, according to projectlifesaver.org.
Last month in Virginia, an Alzheimer’s patient was rescued in Lynchburg in 1 hour, 15 minutes. Two dementia patients were rescued in Newport News in 27 and 54 minutes, respectively, and an Alzheimer’s patient was rescued in Norfolk in 4 minutes.
In 2011, an autistic boy, who was not enrolled in the program, became lost in North Anna Battlefield Park in Doswell. Search efforts lasted five days and involved the efforts of more than 1,000 volunteers and public safety personnel.
Project Lifesaver “cuts down on search time, cuts down on manpower being (used) to find this person,” Eichenmiller said.
“You can get feet on the ground immediately,” he added.
Additional search support could still be mobilized, but the Sheriff’s Office would immediately begin using the receiver to track the transmitter.
“In the meantime, at least you have some kind of active system out there that you physically know what you’re looking for, not just he was last seen going off in this direction,” Eichenmiller said.
Locally, the program is funded through donations, and families can enroll for free.
Transmitter batteries last either 30 or 60 days. A deputy visits the participant’s house on a regular schedule to change the battery. Between visits, the caregiver can check to ensure the transmitter remains functional.
“It’s as simple as placing something over that little transmitter. It blinks a light to let you know that it’s working. They do that once a day. That’s really the only maintenance,” Eichenmiller said.
Eichenmiller urged participating families not to hesitate if they need to call the Sheriff’s Office, whether it’s a battery issue or their loved one has gone missing.
“People feel like it’s an inconvenience upon the Sheriff’s Office, and it’s not. We are here to provide the people that service,” he said.
“We want people in this program. It’s a great program, and for Caroline, which is a smaller department, it’s harder to activate those big-scale searches.
“If we have something that can assist us in that and find this person faster, then that’s less resources, that’s less people you have to pay to come out.”
So far, Caroline deputies have not had to activate the Project Lifesaver receiver to track anyone down, but Eichenmiller said it’s only a matter of time before the need arises. “We might have had (situations) where a client has gone missing and we’ve been notified, and by the time we got there—which was great—the person was found, but … it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen. It’s when. The numbers (of eligible clients) in Caroline are growing,” he said.
Eichenmiller reiterated, “We want our enrollment to go up.”
Interested caregivers should contact the Sheriff’s Office at (804) 633-5400 to set up a meeting with staff. The caregiver will have to fill out some paperwork and provide some general information about the client.
“So should a search be initiated, then it gives us an idea of what to look for, what their habits are, whether they’re a very sociable person or they keep to themselves, and just gives us a better searching point,” Eichenmiller explained.
“We want to be able to offer people some kind of reassurance that if they’re enrolled in this program, we have a lot more success finding them if they do tend to wander off,” he added. “It’s a great program, and we want people to utilize it as much as possible.”