Tracking bracelets aid in search for missing

Published 2:35 am Wednesday, January 19, 2005

By By Lee Weyhrich
It happens all the time.
Senior citizens with dementia such as Alzheimer's disease wander from their homes and disappear, sometimes never to be seen again.
Project Lifesaver, a new program formed by the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, may prevent something like this from happening to a loved one.
"Elderly patients or children with autism can sometimes wander," Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said. "These people can wear a Lifesaver bracelet with a transmitter encased in hard plastic that sends out an FM radio signal, even after it has been immersed in water."
The bracelet resembles a watch and has to be put on with a special device. It can only be removed with strong hands and a pair of scissors.
"Most patients are unable to remove it," Smith said.
According to Smith, the project actually began in the New England states. Since it began there it has had a 100-percent success rate.
Over five million people in this country suffer from Alzheimer's disease and many of these people wander and become lost, Smith said. Though the project has only recently been announced the sheriff's department has been working with it for over a year.
"When we heard about the program and decided to do it we needed someone to go to the training," Smith said. "Luckily we had someone volunteer."
Lee Hall, an Escambia County deputy, was that volunteer. Hall is the first person in this county trained to use the equipment necessary to track the bracelets.
"We were going to start advertising this project about the time Ivan hit, but Ivan set it back," Smith said.
The devices are paid for largely from donations made to the Sheriff's Office, Smith said. "We are offering these bracelets to anyone with a doctor's recommendation, who is at risk of wandering off," he said. "Everyone that sponsors us gets a plaque, the family (of the user) gets a plaque that tells them who has sponsored their loved-ones bracelet."
Each bracelet has a unique radio frequency so that a specific individual may be tracked. "Each bracelet has its own frequency, and we can program hundreds and even thousands of individual frequencies," Hall said.
According to Smith and Hall the bracelets can be tracked from about a mile away on land and up to 10 miles by air.
The system does not rely on a global positioning system satellite or GPS.
"This system is far more reliable, durable and dependable than a GPS system," Hall said. Current GPS systems of this type only have an effective battery life of less than 36 hours and have other problems that can go wrong with them, Smith said. The battery life of the system currently in place is 45 days, but the batteries are replaced every 30 days.
The units cost a little more than $313 per unit and the batteries are around $8 a piece.
Smith has had several cases involving seniors who have wandered off. Two in particular prompted him to find a suitable solution. One person was found a year after his disappearance, another has still not been found.
"Not a month goes by when we don't work on that missing person case," Smith said. "The bottom line is I don't want to have to look for anybody for a year."
With this system the average time needed to find a patient is 30 minutes, Smith said. After the first few hours the chances of finding a lost senior alive drops dramatically.
So far none of the patients currently on the program in Escambia have wandered off.
Anyone who is eligible for the program can have a bracelet at no cost.
"We will find the money to get one for everyone who needs it," Smith said.
Most of the money for the program comes from private donations. The sheriff's office would like to purchase more bracelets, so monetary donations are needed.
"We need help for this program to work," Smith said. "We need money for the bracelets and we need to know who needs them."
Anyone interested in donating money or is in need of a bracelet can call the sheriff's office at 809-2141 or Hall at 809-0647.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox