Transmitter program saves lives

Published 7:46 pm Monday, September 13, 2010

On July 25, an elderly Virginia Beach resident with dementia went missing in the resort city.

Despite record-breaking heat and a storm, Mary Eileen Butts was found alive six days later, to the certain delight of her family and all involved in the search.

However, she likely could have been returned home in less than an hour if she had been wearing a Project Lifesaver bracelet, says Suffolk Project Lifesaver coordinator Lt. Mason Copeland.

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Project Lifesaver is the only organized program that is designed to search electronically for lost people. Begun by the Chesapeake sheriff’s office in 1999, it now is used in 45 states, Canada and Australia.

The program provides a transmitter to the family of anyone who is prone to wandering, including people with dementia, autism, Down syndrome, stroke, traumatic brain injury, illness, those taking medications that make them confused and others.

When a person is reported missing, Suffolk fire department personnel track the signal on the ground, in vehicles or from borrowed aircraft, depending on how long the person has been missing and the general terrain of the area.

“Our main focus here is bringing people back alive,” Copeland said of the program, noting that it also saves time and taxpayer resources. “It’s a service we’re offering. We’ve never turned anyone down.”

The program has been in Suffolk since 2001. During the past two years, there were 18 searches for Project Lifesaver participants. The average time from receiving the report to finding the lost person was 17 minutes.

By contrast, the average search for an Alzheimer’s patient not wearing a transmitter takes about nine hours and uses multiple resources. Most Project Lifesaver searches require only two or three firefighters to be involved.

“We’ve been able to facilitate every fire station with tracing equipment,” Copeland said. “As long as we can do that, we’re able to keep response times down. Most of our searches have been resolved with just once searcher.”

To participate in the program, the patient needs a caregiver who is willing to help out by testing the transmitter once a day to ensure it is working properly and checking it visually for any damage.

“It takes five seconds,” Copeland said.

Suffolk has 14 participants in the program — 10 Alzheimer’s patients, three autistic children and one child with Down syndrome.

Project Lifesaver personnel also visit the home once a month to check the battery and inspect the transmitter, which does not make noise.

The worldwide success rate on Project Lifesaver searches is 100 percent, Copeland said.

“Look at the amount of man-hours and equipment that you’re saving by rapid response,” Copeland said. “Not only are you getting them back alive before any harm can come to them, but you’re saving a lot of money.”

Project Lifesaver does not cost participants anything. All equipment and operational costs are paid for by donations, grants and fundraisers.

“Area departments are struggling now with grants and donations,” Copeland said. Meanwhile, “the numbers of autistic children and Alzheimer’s patients are growing with leaps and bounds.”

The Pilot Club of Suffolk and Nansemond River Pilot Club, especially, have been instrumental in getting and keeping the Project Lifesaver program in Suffolk, Copeland said.

“It has brought many a person back to their loved ones,” he said. “As long as we’re able to handle it through grants and donations, we’ll charge nothing to the city.”

For more information on the program, or to donate, call Copeland at 514-4545.