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Project Lifesaver's radio tracking devices come to Tampa Bay area and can find wanderers with dementia, autism and Alzheimer's

Carol Solomon stood in the street, squinting over a long walkway toward the front door of a vacant house.

That can't be him, the Sarasota police volunteer thought as she tried to decipher what looked like a pile of towels propped on the stoop. That can't be the 90-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease reported missing from his home on Father's Day, a scorching Sunday in June.

Yet she couldn't ignore the stubborn chirping of her handheld tracking device. As she stepped closer toward the house, the chirping grew louder. Solomon sprinted toward the house, leaped over the sidewalk and ran down the footpath. There was the man, crouched against the door, clutching the doorknob of a house he thought was his.

"If we hadn't found him when we found him, he likely would have fallen over and not gotten back up," Solomon said.

Solomon found the man using Project Lifesaver, a nationwide program that uses a radio tracking system to locate people who wander off and can't find their way home. The program targets people with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, Down syndrome and autism. Clients wear bracelets around the wrist or ankle equipped with personal transmitters made by LoJack, the same company whose technology tracks stolen vehicles. It boasts an average location time of 30 minutes.

For family members with missing loved ones, every second counts.

Solomon found the man within seven minutes of starting her search. But he had already been missing about 45 minutes, an agonizing time for his daughter, Gail Coles.

Until Solomon arrived, Coles was panicking.

"It's very scary," Coles said. "You really don't know that you're going to find them, or that you're going to find them before they get hurt, or worse."

Project Lifesaver originated in Chesapeake, Va., in 1999 and counts about 2,000 successful finds since its inception. It now reaches almost every state and Canada. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with Tampa police, intends to launch the program in September. Pinellas County sheriff's deputies joined in April. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office started in 2004.

In Pasco, 200 people have registered for the program since it started there. Ed Eckert, who coordinates the county's program, says 50 are on the rolls now. Deputies in Pasco have activated the program about a half-dozen times in five years, and each person was found alive and well, he said.

Since April, Pinellas County deputies have enrolled 20 people in the program, said Sgt. Larry Nalvan. The majority are dementia patients. The program hasn't been used yet, but he suspects it's only a matter of time.

Cpl. Jeff Massaro, the Hillsborough sheriff's deputy coordinating his agency's training, expects Project Lifesaver to make the difference in cases similar to one in March, when a 75-year-old woman visiting from England wandered out of her niece's home in Ruskin. A 60-person search team, which included a helicopter crew, found her dead two days later a few miles from her niece's home.

"We would have found her in less than 30 minutes if she were one of our clients," Massaro said, referring to the project's average recovery time.

Time is crucial when searching for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, experts say.

More than 60 percent of patients with dementia will wander away at least once in the course of their disease, and if not found in the first 24 hours, more than half will suffer injuries or death, said Gloria Smith, president and chief executive of the Alzheimer's Association, Florida Gulf Coast Chapter.

"It's a huge problem," said Smith, who welcomes the spread of Project Lifesaver and encourages agencies to link it to Medic­Alert and the association's Safe Return ID jewelry.

Pinellas County has more than 33,000 people with Alzheimer's disease; Hillsborough, almost 22,000; and Pasco, almost 16,500, Smith said.

If they wander out of the house, they may get confused, hide and not respond to their names, Smith said.

The most important goal of Project Lifesaver is finding people before they get hurt, said Hillsborough's Massaro. But it also can save a lot of money by dispatching a three-person team for less than an hour rather than dozens of deputies for days.

This is how it works, he said:

Patients or clients are assigned a frequency on the FM dial, which, unlike a GPS signal, won't be lost indoors or in bad weather. That frequency is programmed into the bracelet a patient wears like a watch. If the client wanders away and gets lost, a caregiver will call 911.

Three trained sheriff's deputies or Tampa police officers will report to the last known location of the missing patient. Once they turn their equipment on, an antenna placed on the roof of a vehicle can pick up the bracelet's signal within a quarter of a mile. A handheld tracking device can then zero in on the subject within a mile.

If needed, the tracking device in a helicopter will pick up a signal within 5 to 7 miles, Massaro said. Families that are traveling can register with participating agencies in other states and Canada.

In Hillsborough, the device costs $100 to start up and then $30 every month for maintenance, he said. Sponsors are often available to help financially challenged families.

Massaro trains community groups to handle the bracelet's maintenance, which consists primarily of changing the batteries once a month. It relieves the burden from deputies and caregivers while providing an independent check on the equipment, he said.

Already, one social service group is ready to sign up 60 patients in Sun City Center, Massaro said. But he also expects the program to catch on with parents of autistic children.

Maria Smith, whose 7-year-old son Damon has autism, enrolled in Pasco County's Project Lifesaver program three years ago.

Smith installed special padlocks in her home because Damon likes to bolt out the door and run.

Although she has yet to use the program, there is cause for concern. Damon got out of the house in February and ran eight blocks before adults found him.

"I threw up, I was nauseous for days," said Smith, 43, of Hudson.

Project Lifesaver helps ease her worries because of the speed in which people can be found, she said.

Every month, Eckert, the coordinator in Pasco, visits. Damon seems comfortable with both Eckert as he changes the battery and the anklet, which his mother tests every day to make sure it's working.

"It's part of my family now," Smith said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

FAST FACTS

For more information

Project Lifesaver, visit www.projectlifesaver.org.

Alzheimer's disease, visit www.alz.org.

The Hillsborough County program, call (813) 247-0455.

The Pinellas County program, call (727)582-6806.

The Pasco County program, call (727)847-5878, ext. 1283.

Project Lifesaver's radio tracking devices come to Tampa Bay area and can find wanderers with dementia, autism and Alzheimer's 08/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 5:37pm]

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