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Finding Lost Souls: Explaining PROJECT LIFESAVER

Tania Ortega-Cowan

If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or Autism, then you know the worry they might wander off.  Hey, so – there is a solution! It is called Project Lifesaver and has rescued thousands of lost people!

KH: Over 3,500! Right now as of just a couple days ago actually! Yes.

That is Kyrianna Hoffses…

KH: the Public Relations and Media Coordinator for Project Lifesaver

We meet in their Port St Lucie office. Joining us is the Project Lifesaver creator himself - Gene Saunders!

GS: “the Founder and CEO of Project Lifesaver International.”

So, first things first – what is it and how does it work?

GS: It consists of an RF tracking receiver that can tune into different frequencies and different bands and then a transmitter that is worn 24-7 for 30-60 days at a time by the at-risk person that emits a radio signal on a preset frequency that we can pick up and track.

Just how effective is it?

GS: All of our searches average less than 30 minutes on recovery. You know, we have time windows that you deal with. Alzheimer’s you’ve got 24 hours to locate them. If you don’t locate them within 24 hours – the fact that they are in major distress or worse is heightened. Children with Autism? Much much less. You’ve probably got 15 – 30 minutes before they could possibly be in serious trouble.

Saunders got the idea for Project Lifesaver in 1997 when he was a Captain with the Chesapeake, Virginia Police Department and heading up the local Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue.

GS: Nobody at that time really knew how to search for an Alzheimer’s patient.

One day he saw a brochure concerning wildlife tracking which gave him an idea.

GS: What if we identified people that we felt like were at risk and would wander and get lost – we could provide them with a tracking bracelet.

The local hospital funded the pilot program which kicked off April 9, 1999, and since then has been adopted by numerous first responder agencies.

GS: Almost 1,600 right now in 50 states, 7 provinces in Canada and the District of Columbia and we’re actually working with Western Australia right now to establish it there.

Usually it is free or sometimes there is a very low cost depending on the agency and its funding sources. If listeners hearing this are thinking of enrolling a loved one in the program…

GS: Well first they could go to our website and click on “where we are.” Find out if they are in a Project Lifesaver area.

In our listening area, the sheriff’s offices in Brevard, Indian River, St Lucie, and Palm Beach Counties are participating.

Next, we wondered how Project Lifesaver ended up with Headquarters in Florida?

GS: A lot of retirees and elderly come down here and we were seeing a big rise in the dementia/Alzheimer’s population.

To their surprise they also noticed a big rise in the autism population here too.

GS: When I started this program, we didn’t start it with any autism. I didn’t even know what autism was. But the little bit of study I did at the time – the numbers then were one in 10,000. Now look at it. What is it 1 in 58? 59. One in 59. So OK wow.

The entire nonprofit is run by only 11 full time people in 2 offices, a couple of part time people and some volunteers. How do they accomplish it all with a small staff?

GS: Well everyone believes in what they are doing, and they all wear 3 or 4 hats. We stay busy.

KH: Definitely. 100% always busy. But it’s worth it because we are doing something good.

For their 20th Anniversary, Nora Firestone has written a book on Saunders and Project Lifesaver. It’s called Deploying High and it comes out April 6. Follow this link for more information on PROJECT LIFESAVER.