Persons with Alzheimer’s, autism, Down syndrome, dementia or other cognitive disabilities sometimes wander away from their homes and become lost. Depending on where and how long the individual is lost, the situation can become life-threatening, especially in adverse weather conditions.
For several years, a program called Project Lifesaver has worked to provide public safety agencies with radio tracking devices to safeguard persons susceptible to getting lost. In West Virginia, the program started in 2005, and the technology is now available in Pocahontas County.
The Project Lifesaver system consists of a small radio transmitter, the size of a wristwatch, and hand-held radio tracking receivers. A transmitter is worn around the wrist or ankle of a protected individual. If that person becomes lost, the caregiver notifies rescue personnel, who use tracking receivers to locate the lost person. The transmitter range is one mile on the ground and up to seven miles if the receiver is airborne in a helicopter or airplane. New transmitter batteries must be installed about once a month.
Greer Industries, based in Morgantown, donated $196,000 to get Project Lifesaver started in West Virginia. The money was used to provide counties with receivers and two transmitters for training purposes. Local agencies must obtain funding to purchase additional transmitters for at-risk individuals, at a cost of $300 each.
Last week, Project Lifesaver state coordinator Sue Patalano, with the Wood County Sheriff’s Office, and Lincoln County coordinator Michael Holton trained Pocahontas County Search and Rescue (SAR) team members on the use of the devices. The county received two tracking receivers and two transmitters.
“Once I leave here, they will be certified, and they still need to purchase transmitters,” said Patalano. “To open it up to the public, they need more transmitters.”
Once the system is implemented, the cost to client families is low.
“It’s up to the counties, but I suggest that they charge $10 a month,” said Patalano. “That will cover the cost of a battery and the band, because you have to cut the band to change the battery. That gives them a little extra for those people who can’t afford the $10 a month. The reason that it’s so cheap is because the county owns those transmitters and can keep re-using them.”
Patalano said the system has been used to locate thousands of lost persons across the country.
“Since April 1999, there’s been 2,484 rescues, nationwide,” she said. “Forty-four of those have been in West Virginia. No serious injuries, no fatalities, the average rescue time is 30 minutes or less. A conventional search averages about nine hours. If you have to pay people to do that nine hour search, it’s about $1,500 an hour.”
Training for local personnel covered two days and included device operation and maintenance, ground tracking, vehicle tracking and graded exercises. Emergency Management Services Director Shawn Dunbrack received training, along with Pocahontas County SAR team members Brain Smith, Susan Sharp and David Sharp.
“I want to know that these people can find a lost person,” said Patalano. “When I leave here and send the paperwork in, I’m saying that they can locate these individuals and that’s a tremendous responsibility. So I want to make sure they do enough hands-on that I know they can use that equipment.”
Dunbrack said Project Lifesaver clients from out of town can be located, as long as local rescue teams are provided with the client’s frequency, or number.
“One thing I think is important for us is, because we have such an influx of tourists, those people who come here can know that their loved one can be located here, as well as they would have been back home,” he said. “And vice-versa – people from here who go to the beach or whatever, they can be located there. They don’t need a different transmitter, rescue teams just need to know their number.”
The Pocahontas County SAR team is an all-volunteer force.
“There’s no cost because we’re all volunteer search and rescue,” said Smith. “So, aside from the equipment cost, there will be no man-hours. We are not charging for our services on the search and rescue side of things.”
According to Dunbrack, the local SAR team has been activated about once a year.
“We had one Alzheimer patient who got in a car and drove away,” said David Smith. “They found him in Grant County.”
Dunbrack said he would seek funding from local government and service groups to purchase additional transmitters. For information on signing up for the new service or donating to the transmitter fund, contact Pocahontas County Emergency Services at 304-799-4567. More information on the Project Lifesaver rescue system can be found at projectlifesaver.org.