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Project Lifesaver comes to town

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By Carol A. Clark

The terrifying prospect of a loved one going missing lessened last week in Los Alamos County. Sheriffs from Doa Ana County trained Los Alamos police detectives on the latest technology available to quickly locate and return wandering adults – who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome or autism, for instance – and children to their families and caregivers.Project Lifesaver forms partnerships with local law enforcement and public safety organizations around the country. People enrolled in the Project Lifesaver program wear a personalized wristband that emits a tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day.When caregivers notify the local Project Lifesaver agency that a person is missing, the search and rescue team deploys to the wanderer’s area and starts searching with the mobile locater tracking system. Search times have been reduced under this program from hours and days to sheer minutes.In more than 1,000 searches, everyone was found and there have been no reported serious injuries or deaths.Betty Kuehne is program director of the New Mexico chapter of Alzheimer’s Association. “Project Lifesaver is funded under a federal grant and we are the conduit for the grant,” Kuehne said. “We work with sheriff’s departments in each county. In Los Alamos, the police department volunteered to administer the program.”Kuehne joined Lt. Arlis Rhodes, who is in charge of support services in Doa Ana County and Sgt. Jason Daugherty of the Lea County Sheriff’s Department in training LAPD detectives Shari Mills, Ron Binion and Doug Johnson, LAPD dispatcher Tina Archuleta and Ofc. Chris Romero at police headquarters Tuesday and Wednesday.They said the charitable, nonprofit organization is an innovative rapid response program designed to locate and return wandering adults and children to their families and caregivers quickly.“Project Lifesaver is based solely on the ‘last seen point,’ ” Daugherty said. “The national average under this program is 22 minutes that the person is found and returned home safe.”He explained that the program is so effective that it narrows searches from 50-200 people and two-three days – with wanderers sometimes not being found at all – down to two-three people, some 20 minutes and 100-percent success since the program’s inception in 2002 in Virginia.Mills is the police department’s coordinator for Project Lifesaver. She described the extensive training she and her team went through.“They hid transmitters all over town and we found every one of them in less than 15 minutes,” she said. “And Betty (Kuehne) came across a person here whose grandson is autistic and she’s going to come in and talk to us about the program.”Rhodes praised the Los Alamos team on how quickly and accurately they picked up the training. “This is the easiest group I’ve ever worked with,” he said.Project Lifesaver is timely because the number of people, families and communities experiencing this risk is projected to grow dramatically in the next few years.A video shown during the two-day training session states more than 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to triple by 2050. More than 50 percent of these people wander and become lost.A lost person with Alzheimer’s or other dementia represents a critical emergency. They are unaware of their situation, they do not call out for help and do not respond to people calling out to them.Nearly half of them die and many become injured or fall victim to predators if not located within 24 hours.Project Lifesaver teams are specially trained, not only in search and rescue and the use of the electronic tracking equipment, but also in the methods necessary to communicate with a person who has Alzheimer’s disease or a related disorder. The person who is located will be disoriented, anxious, and untrusting.The Project Lifesaver team is trained on how to approach the person, gain their trust and put them at ease for the trip home.The Project Lifesaver bracelet is a one-ounce battery-operated radio wrist transmitter emitting an automatic tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day for up to 45 days. The signal can be tracked on the ground or in the air over several miles. Each bracelet has a unique radio frequency, which allows the search team to positively locate and identify the person who has wandered away from home or a care facility.The trainers explained that Project Lifesaver is about people and partnerships. The focus is on communities where law enforcement, civic groups, local business and caregivers join in developing and strengthening all aspects of the program – including rescues, education and especially fundraising – so that families in financial need can have the protection and peace of mind.The Betty Ehart Senior Center has information available onsite about the local program. To enroll a loved one, call LAPD detectives at 662-8274.