County Hopes Program A Lifesaver
County Hopes Program A Lifesaver
By Hicham Raache
Times Record • email@example.com
Monday, March 8, 2010 9:35 AM CST
Sebastian County authorities have been working to implement a system that will enable authorities to locate quickly people with mental disorders who wander off.
The Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office is obtaining tracking equipment, services and training from Project Lifesaver International, a program that helps law enforcement agencies swiftly locate missing adults and children with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or autism.
“I started looking at it about a year ago, especially during the time Mr. (Billy) Wheeler came up missing and we had so much difficulty trying to locate him,” Chief Deputy Tommy Young of the Sheriff’s Office said.
Billy Wayne Wheeler, 66, of Jenny Lind disappeared from his ex-wife’s residence in the 2500 block of Boothe Road in the early morning hours of April 21, 2009. Wheeler, who was known by the nickname “Butch,” lived in Fort Smith, but was staying at Shirley Wheeler’s home because he had become ill, suffering from bouts of confusion. He had been diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson’s disease, according to authorities with the Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities said Wheeler had gone to sleep at 10 p.m. April 20. When Shirley Wheeler checked on him at about 12:30 a.m., he was asleep in his bed. At 5:30 a.m. April 21, he was gone. His shoes were still inside the house. It is believed that Wheeler may have left the house barefoot.
A massive operation, spearheaded by the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office in April and consisting of 100 rescue personnel searching either on foot, horseback, ATV or from helicopter, went on for several days before being called off.
Nearly one year later, Wheeler has yet to be located.
Young said the implementation of Project Lifesaver could make such a massive and unsuccessful search less likely in Sebastian County.
“You want a speedy recovery as quickly as possible, not only for manpower reasons, but the health of the individual we’re trying to locate,” Young said.
Young said Project Lifesaver was brought to his attention by Beth Deramus, a former employee of Fort Smith Alzheimer’s Association. He said he then began researching Project Lifesaver and spoke with Chief Deputy Ron Brown of the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office.
Crawford County purchased tracking equipment from Project Lifesaver in 2008 and signed up its first client in January 2009, according to Brown.
“We started out with enough transmitting bracelets for 10 (Crawford County residents) and we went ahead and purchased seven more,” Brown said.
The bracelets obtained from Project Lifesaver are worn by adults or children who have mental disorders that cause them to wander off. The bracelets transmit a signal which law enforcement agencies can track with Project Lifesaver tracking equipment, according to Brown.
Mobile tracking equipment provided by Project Lifesaver can detect a bracelet frequency within a two- to four-mile radius, Brown said.
Searchers begin tracking at the point where the missing person disappeared, and continue following a signal from the frequency of the missing person’s Project Lifesaver bracelet.
If a local resident wearing a Project Lifesaver bracelet goes missing in another state, he or she can be tracked in that area by law enforcement agencies equipped with Project Lifesaver tracking devices, Brown said.
Project Lifesaver has more than 1,100 participating agencies across the U.S., Canada and Australia, “and has performed over 2,100 searches in the last 10 years with a 100 percent success rate,” according to the official Project Lifesaver Web site.
It is urgent that a missing person suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease be located soon after they go missing, Young said.
“The quicker you find a person with disability or dementia the better,” Young said. “The longer they are out in the elements, the more risky it is for them.”
The elements of Sebastian County, which consist of rural and wooded areas with bodies of water and heavy brush, is highly dangerous for a lost individual suffering from a mental disorder, Young said.
Project Lifesaver equipment would better ensure that such lost individuals would be located before coming upon such dangers, Young said.
“Instead of spending three to five days searching for somebody, we should be able to find them in the first few hours with this type of system,” Young said.
Young said he has spoken with county officials about Project Lifesaver and so far it has been met with enthusiasm. He said the next part of the process is a discussion of cost.
Brown said that for the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office, the average cost of each transmitter was $280 with an annual maintenance cost of $300. The Crawford County Sheriff’s Office purchased transmitters and tracking equipment with drug forfeiture money, but relies upon donations for maintenance costs. He said donations can be made through the Bank of the Ozarks to the Summit Women’s Auxiliary Project Lifesaver Account.
Project Lifesaver tracking devices, Young said, will save the county money that would go into paying overtime wages for the scores of emergency responders who participate in a search when a person with a mental disorder goes missing.
“(Right now) we have all the conventional resources to conduct a search, but this would make it a lot easier, with less manpower and less cost,” Young said.
Shannon Ladd, outreach coordinator for the Fort Smith Alzheimer’s Association, said there are about 60,000 Arkansas residents 65 and older with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.