Project Lifesaver helps police bring missing loved ones home, safe and sound.
➼ It’s a nightmare that can easily become reality for anyone who has a parent with dementia or a child with autism. One minute they’re safe at home and the next—gone without a trace.
Wandering is a common behavior for people with cognitive impairments, and a deadly risk. That’s why Project Lifesaver was founded in 1999 in Chesapeake, Virginia. The nonprofit organization provides law enforcement agencies with equipment and training to quickly locate wandering people who have cognitive disabilities.
The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office joined the Project Lifesaver program in 2007. The program is open to individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, autism, and any other kind of cognitive impairment “that would make them wander and not know how to get home, even if they might be 100 yards down the road,” says Deputy A.D. Bise, Mon County’s Project Lifesaver coordinator.
Participants are equipped with transmitters about the size of a men’s watch that emit a signal every second. “We have receivers that can pick up that signal,” Bise says. Every bracelet has a unique frequency so officers can specifically tune into the missing person’s transmitter.
About 30 people in Monongalia County were wearing transmitters in March 2018, and 10 police officers in the county were trained to find them. If a participant comes up missing, their caregiver calls 911, and dispatchers contact the sheriff’s office, which sends out Project Lifesaver–trained officers to locate the person. Their cruisers are equipped with antennas that can locate a transmitter within a half mile in any direction. Once officers get a hit, they set out on foot with handheld receivers that allow them to home in on the signal. “You keep narrowing it down until you find what you’re looking for,” Bise says. It’s effective with just one officer, but Bise says the process goes even faster when multiple officers are on the case. “We get them surrounded, and we’re going to find them real fast.”
If police cannot find the missing person within the first 30 to 45 minutes, Bise takes to the air in a West Virginia State Police helicopter, searching for a signal at the missing person’s last known location. Once he finds the signal, he radios the location to the searchers on the ground.
This is all just hypothetical, however—although officers undergo regular retraining to ensure they can conduct a search effectively, they’ve never had to go looking for a missing person. Strange as it might seem, Bise says participants change their behavior when they’re fitted with transmitters. “Once we put them on the program, they quit wandering. I don’t know what’s going on here, but that’s good. Ten years of doing this, and never really had a callout.”
Contact the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office if you’re interested in signing a loved one up for Project Lifesaver. Applicants fill out packets with personal and medical information, which are then reviewed by the sheriff’s department. The program costs $10 per month but, if a family can’t afford it, the service is free of charge.
116 Walnut Street, 304.291.7260, monsheriff.com
photographed by Julian Wyant