Project Lifesaver Aids Search For Missing Persons With Alzheimer’s And Autism

By On August 2, 2018

Members of the Burbank community, and Los Angeles County, now have a new tool to help find loved ones with Alzheimer’s, dementia and autism who are prone to wandering. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is rolling out the pilot Project Lifesaver tracking program county-wide, and interested families and caregivers are encouraged to sign up with the Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department.

This program is part of L.A. County Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger’s “Bringing Our Loved Ones Home” Task Force, which implements safety improvements in the county and addresses the many loved ones with cognitive and communication impairments who wander away or go missing every year.

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Project Lifesaver transmitter and receiver. (Photo Courtesy Project Lifesaver)

In the Supervisors’ initiative, Hahn directly points to the Project Lifesaver program that Glendale Police Department piloted last year.

Individuals wear a wristband with a transmitter that can send signals to a handheld receiver.

While the wristband is not continually monitored, once the wearer is reported missing, receivers are activated to find that wristband’s frequency and the missing person can be located by using multiple receivers to triangulate the signal.

According to Hahn’s website, “There are currently 19 individuals enrolled in the Glendale Police Department program. Of the 19 individuals enrolled, seven have wandered away from [a] loved one and have gone missing. The police were able to bring all seven individuals home safely.”

“Finding a missing person in L.A. County, the most populated county in the nation with over 10 million population, is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack, at times,” commented Lt. John Gannon, of the LASD’s Mental Evaluation Team (MET.)

“Now, for families who opt for Project Lifesaver or similar technologies… a transmitter will send us (law enforcement) a signal when that lost person cannot call for us themselves.”

Time is of the essence in locating any missing person, and those with cognitive and communication impairments pose a tougher challenge. When a person from the Burbank community wearing the transmitter goes missing, Gannon says caregivers should call 911.

“It is absolutely critical to tell the 911 operator the person is wearing a Project Lifesaver wristband transmitter – or other technology the family subscribes to,” he emphasizes. “This allows Burbank PD to immediately notify LASD so we can summon the team and get on our way without any unnecessary delays.”

“If the person is found, we can always turn back,” Gannon added. “But we would rather get moving in that direction without delay so our first LASD team member arriving can try to pick up the signal and radio to other responding units where they need to go to triangulate and locate the individual.”

“Early notice also allows us to notify the helicopter crew to lift off and/or respond to Burbank with a receiver. The sooner the better.”

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Members of the L.A Sheriff’s Department Mental Evaluation Team (MET) (left to right): Deputy Vincent Ortiz, Deputy TJ Johnson, Sergeant Kevin Tiwari and Deputy Joe Miranda. The MET conducted a mock search in the field where the transponder was placed a half a mile away in a bush and located within 10 minutes. (Photo Courtesy Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

The LASD has a large number of trained staff able to respond to critical missing person requests at all times. The Department has pre-staged receiver equipment at various locations countywide to reduce response time and they also have two receivers for county helicopters to help pick up the signal more quickly.

“Burbank Police Department may request LASD to respond via mutual aid to assist with any lost critical missing person in Burbank wearing a Project Lifesaver transmitter,” explained Gannon. “We work as a team in partnership with the requesting agency. They remain the lead agency, of course.”

“LASD is there to provide the search capability and logistics. We will likely partner each of our personnel with local agency officers who are most familiar with their city.”

The range of the transmitter depends on the environment – ground units may only get 1/4 to 1/2 mile range in a dense city with tall buildings. Helicopters can receive the signal up to five miles away.

“During recent training in the San Gabriel Valley, we were typically receiving the signal approximately three miles out from where the person wearing the transmitter was ultimately found,” said Gannon. “Average time to locate patients was about 18 minutes… but that’s with good last seen direction and approximate time of how long ago they were last seen.”

“A wandering person can traverse three to five miles in an hour. We need that last known witness info and elapsed time ASAP so we can map out our strategy for deploying the locators.”

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Project Lifesaver transmitter looks like a watch. (Photo Courtesy Project Lifesaver)

Project Lifesaver uses radio frequency (RF) technology similiar to Lo-Jack and AM/FM radio stations, added Gannon.

“It’s proven dependable technology for many years,” he said. “It is not dependent upon cellular towers or carriers to transmit a signal. Unlike GPS signals, RF technology will operate through most walls and roof materials without need for an open line-of-sight to satellite(s.)”

“RF does have limitations like all wireless technologies do. Every technology has inevitable points of failure and nothing is ever 100%. However, Project Lifesaver program and the RF technology has proven to be reliable during thousands of searches nationwide for well over a decade now.”

“Like any tool, it’s only as good as its operators,” Gannon continued. “Therefore, the commitment to Project Lifesaver from the county and the Sheriff’s Department is critically important to ensure skilled operators are always reachable 24 hours and seven days per week.”

“That’s why the LASD has committed the Mental Evaluation Team and Communication & Fleet Management Bureau as the co-lead for this program. They are supported by Sheriff’s Aero Bureau personnel who are specifically trained to operate the airborn equipment countywide.”

A limited number of the Project Lifesaver transmitters are available for free through the County for low-income, at risk individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia and autism, according to Veronica Sigala, Adult Protective Services Program & Planning Program Manager for the L.A. County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department.

Families and caregivers may also purchase the Project Lifesaver transmitter for approximately $300. There are no monthly or annual fees and the first year of batteries are included.

Lt. Gannon encourages those families who purchase their own transmitter register with Sigala to ensure L.A. County can include them in the tracker database.

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series detailing the L.A. Sheriff’s Department pilot of Project Lifesaver, a tracking technology program used to find missing persons with cognitive and communication disabilities. Part 2 details more of the LASD training with Project Lifesaver. Families and caregivers who wish to apply for a free transmitter or sign up for the tracking database should contact Veronica Sigala at the L.A. County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department at 213-910-1662.