MANSFIELD — Years ago an Ashland woman with dementia went missing.
According to Richland County Sheriff’s deputy Charles Hosey, the woman was at Menards in Ontario and had wandered off.
“They looked for her for about an hour, if I recall, before calling the police,” he said.
Through a multi-law enforcement effort, police were able to locate the woman not long after arriving on scene.
Locating her whereabouts was made much easier with the help of Project Lifesaver.
Established in April 1999 as an initiative of the 43rd Search and Rescue Company of the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office, Project Lifesaver is a program that involves the use of radio frequency technology to help find missing individuals, many of whom are afflicted with Alzheimer’s, dementia or developmental disorders.
The program is implemented by law enforcement agencies across the globe, including the Richland, Ashland, Crawford and Knox County Sheriff’s Offices.
Those enrolled in the program wear personalized radio transmitters on the wrist or ankle. If they go missing, first responders use the individualized frequency to locate their position. The signals are picked up by a receiver.
According to Hosey, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office has two receivers and the Mansfield Police Department, Bellville Police Department, Ontario Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office’s outpost in Shiloh each have one receiver.
When the Ashland woman (a Project Lifesaver client) went missing, the Ontario Police Department collaborated with the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office to retrieve the woman’s frequency, which was then dialed into the Ontario Police Department’s receiver, Hosey said.
“They dialed (the frequency) into the unit and within six minutes of getting on scene they found her,” he said.
Project Lifesaver was introduced to Richland County in 2010, according to Hosey, who has managed the program for the past three years. The program was developed in cooperation with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, the Ohio District 5 Area Agency on Aging, Alzheimer's Association Northwest Ohio Chapter, Richland Newhope and the local Lions Clubs (Bellville, Butler, Butler Lioness, Lucas, Madison, Ontario and Plymouth).
To be eligible, individuals must have 24/7 care, Hosey said.
“If they don't have 24/7 care we just can't do it because if they go missing on us, they could be gone five, six, seven, eight hours, and we know nothing about it,” he said.
A questionnaire must be completed before entering the program.
“We want to know things like where they used to work, were they a coach, did they have something special that they did in the community,” Hosey said.
“A lot of times with Alzheimer's, the earliest memories are the last ones to go.”
According to the Alzheimer's Association's website, six in 10 people with dementia will wander, and 94 percent of people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared.
Because Project Lifesaver has such a vast presence, especially within the U.S., caregivers can have peace of mind when traveling with someone in the program.
The transmitters, which use radio frequency (not GPS), cost about $300, though as Hosey said, “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, no one (enrolled in the program) pays anything.”
The local Lions Clubs help fund the program and hold an annual fundraiser — a 5K/10K race at Charles Mill Lake Park. Donations to Project Lifesaver may be made by contacting Lions Club member Ray Kasper at 419-564-2235. Donations are tax exempt.
Hosey said members of the Lions Clubs and the Sheriff’s Office visit Project Lifesaver clients on a monthly basis, ensuring that the transmitter is still functioning properly.
“We also check on the clients to see how they’re doing,” he said. “Are they getting any worse? Are they being taken care of?
“Usually we've never had any problems with them being taken care of properly, unless their caregiver is declining themselves, which has happened.”
Project Lifesaver is meant to assist caregivers and provide them some peace of mind, but some can’t bring themselves to enrolling loved ones into the program, Hosey said.
“I've had a few calls before from families who don’t have a problem with doing this and all that, but they just can't quite bring themselves to put it on their loved one,” he said. “I think it's partly psychological that once they've done it, it's like there's no return from it.”
If/when Project Lifesaver participants transition from home to a nursing home, they are no longer enrolled in the program.
“Nursing homes have lockdown units and they sometimes will have their own type of device that they'll put on them so that when they go to leave the building it'll sound the alarm,” Hosey said.
One of the perks of Project Lifesaver is that it can help keep people in their homes longer.
“We have a couple of clients who have been on it for years,” Hosey said.
In addition to the transmitter/receiver technology, Project Lifesaver responders have drones at their disposal to aid in search and rescue missions.
Hosey is especially excited about a somewhat recent addition — a drone with FLIR technology.
“It sends a radio signal down to the monitor and we can see heat signatures,” he explained.
Hosey termed it “another tool in the tool belt.”
For more information about the Project Lifesaver program in Richland County, including how to sign up and available sponsorship, contact Hosey at 419-524-2412 or the Area Agency on Aging at 419-524-4144.