Project Lifesaver gives New Hanover families peace of mind
Star-News - 7/15/2018
July 15--NEW HANOVER COUNTY -- A 7-year-old girl was missing from her Wilmington home, but no one was sure how long she had been gone.
The child was autistic and nonverbal, and had wandered away from her Aster Court house some time after dawn July 3. When her father called the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office at 7:30 a.m., he had one comfort: a bracelet his daughter wore 24/7 for the Project Lifesaver program.
Deputies arrived and were quickly joined by the Wilmington Police Department, who dispatched their SABLE helicopter. Sheriff's office deputies set up their Project Lifesaver radio equipment, which pings when it's within half a mile of someone's bracelet. A chirp from the machine told them the girl was still nearby.
As the team fanned out, an officer spotted the girl in a neighborhood yard. She was standing in an above-ground pool, enjoying the water.
"She (had gone) out into the garage, changed her clothes, put on her bathing suit, and walked to the nearest pool in the neighborhood," Deputy Gene Moore said. "I don't care who gets the credit -- that little girl was found and that's all that matters."
Project Lifesaver launched in 1999, giving law enforcement technology to quickly locate people with cognitive impairments. Participants wear bracelets that transmit a personalized radio frequency, which receivers owned by the sheriff's department can pick up.
New Hanover joined the program in 2001, starting with what Moore estimates was five participants -- called clients -- across the county. Today, 81 county residents have a Project Lifesaver bracelet, and the office averages 10 to 12 "finds" a year.
"We have a 100 percent find rate," Moore noted.
'Old school' technology
A five-deputy unit manages Project Lifesaver, in addition to their other sheriff's office duties.
Moore estimates that the local program's clients are roughly half children with autism and half adults with Alzheimer's or dementia, though others have Down syndrome or other cognitive issues.
The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office is the only other local law enforcement entity to offer the program.
Though the program costs the sheriff's office between $15,000 and $20,000 per year to maintain, it's completely free to participating families. The only requirements are that a client lives in New Hanover County, is unable to drive and has 24-hour care, which can include parents or a spouse.
From the ground, Project Lifesaver can locate a person up to half a mile away, but from a helicopter it's up to three miles. Moore said unlike GPS, the radio signals used by the technology can penetrate buildings more reliably, and are harder to interrupt.
"The advantage to that is it's much more reliable. It's old-school," he said.
A personal connection
Usually, clients who wander off are found within a few blocks of their home. But sometimes, circumstances can be life-threatening.
Moore recalls one client, a 10-year old autistic girl, who left home during a frigid winter day. She was found huddled in a ditch hours later, cold but alive.
Another man who suffered from Alzheimer's managed to get his wife's spare car key and drive all the way to Beaufort, where he totaled the vehicle but survived the crash. Deputies located him through a Silver Alert, though the Carteret County Sheriff's Office also participates in Project Lifesaver.
For the deputies who work the program, Project Lifesaver creates a personal bond between law enforcement and the New Hanover County residents they serve.
"That's one of the things I love about this program," Moore said. "You see firsthand the hardships that they go through and you really do get invested in them."
Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.
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