Project Lifesaver offers peace of mind

Project Lifesaver coordinator Florence Parker, left, and Loudon County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Michael Watkins explain what the Project Lifesaver equipment does during emergencies.

Quickly finding a loved one with dementia or autism who has wandered off could make the difference between life and death.

Project Lifesaver, a program operated by the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office, can help.

“This is huge,” Florence Parker, local Project Lifesaver coordinator, said. “It’s huge in (Tellico) Village, the Rarity Bays and WindRivers and places like that — Kahite — but it’s also huge in our community.”

Time is of the essence, especially the first 24 hours, LCSO Lt. Michael Watkins said.

“You’ve sort of got a timeline of Alzheimer’s,” Watkins said. “What happens when they first get it, they’ll forget what happened yesterday, what happened the day before. Then it’s sort of like their life turns around and goes backwards. If they were married then divorced then got married to somebody else, then they’ll think they live at the first house, so they’ll try to get back there. It gets back to a point where they forget how to breathe, how to eat, all that.

“So in that time frame if they get lost because they don’t know where their house is, I don’t know what the weather’s supposed to be tonight, but it’s wintertime and gets down below freezing and they’re not found quick, the older we are the more fragile we are so that’s — what happens is they forget where they’re at and then they can’t get anywhere because they’re in that state of mind,” he added. “The time frame is very critical, very critical.”

The program drastically reduces response times. Watkins estimated the average search could take days prior to Project Lifesaver. With the program, it’s down to about 15 minutes.

“The procedure is that the caregiver is to immediately call 911,” Parker said. “911 has all the information that we hold here at the sheriff’s office on each one of our clients, each one of our recipients. The call goes to 911, they dispatch it to Loudon department, they dispatch it to Lenoir City, to Greenback. All the fire departments are qualified in the community, they all have a piece of equipment, so all those goes out to all the police departments. ... They all get the alert and they respond.”

The program offers a free bracelet for families who have a loved one with autism or a form of dementia. Program representatives have a tracker to quickly locate the missing person.

“As soon as we get the call, it’s got a mobile antenna, we can put it on the vehicle, so as we’re going there if say they’ve been missing for 30 minutes or say an hour before the caregiver realized they were gone,” Watkins said. “Well, an hour the average person can walk four miles an hour, so they could be four miles away. Therefore, we may pass them on the way to there, so that’s the reason we put the antenna on the car immediately. As soon as we start getting that signal then that’s where we stop and get out on foot and start to search there.”

Each unit costs $375, but Parker said the devices are free because “families are burdened already with expense and medical expenses for people under the umbrella of dementia” and autism.

Project Lifesaver International is a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by Gene Saunders. Locally, the program has been offered since 2009 and relies solely on donations.

Locally, the program provides services for 10 adults and five children, Parker said. The hope is to create more awareness for the free program, although there is often reluctance in the community to participate.

“They either just don’t trust it or think — personally from what I’ve seen in the last 10 years is that they feel they can handle, and they can’t handle it,” Parker said.

Watkins agreed, noting “denial is one of the biggest hurdles.”

“We get numerous calls on people wandered off, kids missing that’s autistic or maybe they’re in the early stages of dementia or whatever, and we find them, get them back home, that sort of thing,” Watkins said. “Without this equipment, we tell them about it, ‘Oh, this is the first time that ever happened. It’s not a big deal.’ And it may be the first time it happens, but what are you going to do the second time? We’ve had numerous people as well where you got the husband and wife both have a little bit of dementia. It’s here and I think there’s more people that could take advantage of it.”

For more information, call LCSO at 865-986-4823 and ask for Parker or Watkins.

“Whether it’s the elderly or the child, we will have them realistically forever with us, as long as the situation is in place,” Parker said.

“We’d love for people to reach out and get this opportunity before a tragic event happens,” Watkins added.