ST. GEORGE – It wasn’t the first time Valerie Ward’s husband, 80-year-old James Ward, had wandered from home and police were called to search for him. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, he had left home before and made his way to a local book store. Though found safe then, the search took over three hours and included around 40 officers. In contrast, Friday’s search lasted only 15 minutes with James being located a few blocks from home.
Unlike the trip to the bookstore, this time James Ward was wearing a special tracking device that allowed police to quickly find him. The device, which somewhat resembles a wrist watch, is a part of a radio frequency-based tracking system called Project Lifesaver.
“Project Lifesaver was developed to allow agencies, such as St. George Police, search and rescue agencies, sheriff’s departments, to locate individuals (who have) wandered; individuals who have autism, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Down syndrome, any sort of thing that alters their mental state to where they wander,” St. George Police Detective Derek Lewis said.
The program, which is employed by various agencies across the country and beyond, was implemented by the St. George Police Department in early 2015 with Lewis spearheading the effort.
“I sleep better at night,” Valerie Ward said, adding her anxiety levels were greatly reduced once her husband began wearing the tracking device.
Valerie Ward heard about Project Lifesaver from a police officer after her husband was found at Deseret Book following a 3 ½ hour search. She was given Lewis’ contact information and wasted little time in contacting him.
The Wards started the Project Lifesaver program in March. When the tracking bracelet was put to the test last Friday, it was quickly apparent that it was a valuable asset for families with loved ones who may wander off. It also provides police officers and other agencies with a way to locate the wandering individual as quickly as possible.
Though she keeps an eye on her husband on a near constant basis, Valerie Ward said he still manages to slip away like he did Friday. Everything turned out much better this time, thanks to Project Lifesaver.
“It’s a huge saving on manpower and anxiety,” she said.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s or similar conditions can wander off and not be found until days later. Sometimes they are found deceased and no more than a quarter-mile from home, Lewis said. Project Lifesaver was designed to keep that from happening.
“Ultimately what we’re looking to speed up is our response time in locating these individuals, providing some relief to family members so they know if their loved one was to get out, there is this resource to help locate them,” Lewis said.
The St. George Police Department program works in conjunction with the Hurricane City Police Department and Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Between the three agencies, around 20 people are currently utilizing Project Lifesaver.
In addition to the two incidents involving James Ward, St. George Police have been involved in a handful of other searches for at-risk individuals over the past year, including cases involving children with autism and Down syndrome, St. George Police Officer Lona Trombley said.
While the individuals in each case were ultimately found safe and well, none of the individuals were wearing the Project Lifesaver tracker, which could have saved a lot of time and worry for all involved, the officers said.
“All it takes is for one person to disappear and not be found in time,” Lewis said.
The Washington City Police Department also uses Project Lifesaver and will be able to expand its use of the system thanks to a $68,000 grant from Intermountain Healthcare, presented during a Washington City Council meeting last week.
“This is allowing us to purchase the stuff we need to get to most of the people in our community that want to have this service,” Washington City Police Chief Jim Keith said.
Both the St. George and Washington City programs are funded through grants and donations so that approved applicants don’t have to carry a potential financial burden.
Each bracelet can cost between $250 and $350. Batteries are also replaced every 30 days.
“We’re always seeking donations,” Lewis said.
Since multiple agencies across the state and elsewhere are also a part of Project Lifesaver, at-risk individuals living part time in Southern Utah would still benefit from having the bracelet tracker.
“If they’re wearing the wristband and travel somewhere and that community has (Project Lifesaver), they can locate them,” said Amber Rich, community benefit coordinator for Intermountain Healthcare’s southwest region.
Over 1,400 agencies across the United States, Canada and Australia participate in Project Lifesaver, which was founded 17 years ago, according to the organization’s website.
While the Washington City Police program is primarily working to expand use of Project Lifesaver in Washington City, the intent is also to help spread the service across the county in the long run, Keith said.
Anyone interested in applying to the Project Lifesaver tracking system through St. George Police can contact Detective Derek Lewis at 435-627-4358. Washington City Police can be contacted at 435-986-1515.
Applicants will be interviewed and provided with the necessary paperwork to get the program started, Lewis said.
“It’s a big relief and a wonderful program,” Valerie Ward said.
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