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Project Lifesaver: bringing them home safely

Out of My Head

Posted: September 13, 2008 9:53 p.m.
Updated: November 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.

High on every parent's "worst fear" list is the worry that his or her child will get lost, especially if the youngster has a disorder that would prevent him from communicating with others.

For adult children caring for elderly parents with cognitive impairment, that situation is no less terrifying.

Imagine you have a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or autism, someone who is at heightened risk for wandering and getting lost.

Now envision on that loved one's wrist a special, state-of-the art bracelet with a tracking device that provides a safety net for identifying the person's whereabouts.

You're comforted knowing this bracelet - available through Project Lifesaver International, a non-profit organization founded by public safety officers FOR public safety officers - hastens search and rescue response time if the loved one does get away.

Fortunately for our community, such bracelets will be locally deployed this fall and eventually attached to certain people at high risk for wandering (also known as "eloping").

Big thanks to the city of Santa Clarita for bringing in this reassuring mode of security. Likewise, our SCV Sheriff's Station deserves appreciation for its major role.

How it all began: Last year Kevin Tonoian, the city's technology manager, first heard about Project Lifesaver. At the time, Tonoian, the father of a child with special needs, was intrigued by a news story out of West Virginia: A teen with autism became lost during a Thanksgiving holiday family camping trip.

"The boy was found after four days in good shape thankfully, and as a follow-up to that story, an organization called ‘Project Lifesaver' offered the family equipment and the tracking bracelet for their son. That way, if they ever went camping and he got separated again, he could be found," Tonoian said.

This news piqued the Santa Clarita City Council's interest.

In April, Tonoian and Sheriff's Lt. Brenda Cambra attended a Project Lifesaver demonstration meeting in Ventura. They were impressed and recognized great value in the protective bracelets. Next, the council approved the project, and planning for implementation is under way.

That phase involves buying equipment, law enforcement learning its use, and certain local agencies identifying clients in greatest need of such surveillance.

Established in 1999, Project Lifesaver was built on the work of the Stokes County (North Carolina) mountain rescue program. It pioneered use of special equipment and procedures to locate lost and wandering patients with cognitive disorders. Now a lead organization for helping to quickly find these people, it also brings comfort to families and caregivers while saving taxpayer money.

"Project Lifesaver bracelets give families, caregivers, and law-enforcement agencies another tool with which to help locate loved ones who may have wandered off or gotten lost," said Mayor and retired Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Bob Kellar.

"This provides a much-needed ‘watchful eye' on special needs children as well as for seniors."

City Councilwoman Laurie Ender echoed Kellar's sentiments, adding, "I don't think there's anything more important or more rewarding than keeping the people you love safe and healthy."

The city will work with different service groups, such as the SCV Committee on Aging (SCV Senior Center) and the Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network, as well as with private funding sources, to help provide the bracelets to individuals at a discounted rate, explained Ender, herself the parent of a child with special needs. Committing approximately $12,000 to help launch Project Lifesaver, the city will initially purchase three main tracking units, which will be kept at the Sheriff's Station, and 20 bracelets.

With their one-ounce battery-operated radio wrist transmitters, each bracelet emits a continuous automatic tracking signal. Each costs about $300; that includes enough batteries for the first year of service.

The Sheriff's Station is also resident site of the SCV Special Needs Registry, which holds confidential information and identifying photos for persons with special needs.

That source is particularly useful should a child with autism get lost. (CLEAR - Community and Law Enforcement Aware Response - launched the registry in 2006 to help the Sheriff's Department respond to special-needs persons in emergency or criminal situations, and help reunite lost children or adults with families and caregivers.)

Like old-fashioned antennas, the "geomap" surveillance apparatuses provide a 1- to 1.5-square-mile area for zeroing in on missing persons. Once it's activated, search and rescue efforts can swiftly begin.

The bracelets, intended to help find people who slip away in the course of a couple of minutes, sound off when wearers go beyond a certain distance. The system then helps searchers go toward that person's general direction.

"These are not ‘babysitting' devices," Tonoian cautions. "You cannot leave it on your loved one and then go away for five hours. They could be out of range by then."

Brad Berens, executive director of the Senior Center and SCV Committee on Aging Inc. is excited about Project Lifesaver.

"Once again, our city demonstrates its support of the unique needs of our elders and other at-risk populations," Berens said.

"With the aging of our society, and the associated rise in Alzheimer's and other memory-impaired conditions in our elderly, every tool we can muster, like these technological advances, gives caregivers and organizations like ours vital resources to protect the vulnerable."

The program will hopefully become self-funding in time, and that's certainly a reasonable expectation.

"Our goal is to initially make them available to both (Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network) and the SCV Committee on Aging so they can be sold at a discounted price to families and are more affordable for them," Tonoian said.

"We are looking to that as being an opportunity for the agencies to take the money they realize from sales and then reinvest them toward purchasing more devices. If we find there is a lot of value and need, the city would certainly consider looking into ways to continue to expand it."

Congratulations to everyone involved in this important project. The peace of mind it's designed to generate is invaluable.

No wealth on earth is more precious than our loved ones. So anything we can do to protect them, especially those who cannot speak for themselves, is a treasure in itself.

Diana Sevanian is a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own opinion and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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