July 16, 2008

Program Finds the Forgetful: Walton County Launches Project Lifesaver

By Kimberly White, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

Jul. 16--When James Walker disappeared from his home in Pensacola on the evening of June 30, Escambia County sheriff 's deputies began a desperate search on foot for the 70-year-old Alzheimer's patient.

"His wife described it as if he were an 18-year-old," said Kristina Robison, executive director of Pensacola-based Alzheimer's Family Services. "He just got up and ran out of the house."

About an hour into the search, Walker's wife told deputies that her husband was wearing a Project Lifesaver wristband.

He was found 24 minutes later.

"When she told them he was on Project Lifesaver, they started an air search and then located the signal from the air," Robison said. "When they landed the helicopter, the signal became stronger and they found him in some bushes about 30 feet from a creek."

Robison wants to raise awareness about the Project Lifesaver program, which she says has helped officials find three people over the last six months. The program also covers children with autism or Down syndrome.

The program has been operating at several locations in Northwest Florida for the past five or six years. It was launched in Walton County last month.

Raising awareness about the program is especially important in light of the July 3 disappearance of 82-year-old Alzheimer's

patient Colin Hale. He was last seen at about 10 p.m. at Crystal Bay Retirement Center in South Walton after he said he was going to visit his parents.

Participants in Project Lifesaver wear a leather-like wristband that emits a unique tracking signal. Capt. Eddie Farris with the Walton County Sheriff's Office said the signal carries for several miles and can be detected from the air or land.

If someone with Alzheimer's wanders off, his or her caregiver can call 911, he said. That call will be transferred to the Sheriff 's Office, which will send a team to the area where the patient disappeared. The team will use a mobile locator tracking system to pin down the signal.

Robison said that of the 16,600 or so Alzheimer's patients who live in Northwest Florida -- 1,700 of them in Walton County -- only 25 people in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties wear the wristbands. She added that 70 percent of Alzheimer's patients wander off, 60 percent of them repeatedly.

Alzheimer's Family Service leases the Project Lifesaver equipment for a monthly fee of $50. That pays for the wristband and battery, which must be changed each month. The agency receives funding from individuals and grants from family foundations, Robison added, so "no one is turned away because they can't afford it. If they can't pay, we'll do a needs assessment and use grant funds."

Farris said nine deputies and two dispatchers know how to use the tracking equipment and can train others.

"This program is really important (to Sheriff Ralph Johnson)," he added. "His goal is to have every deputy trained. We're going to try to get at least 25 other people trained on it, so no matter what shift they're on, there will always be someone in north and south Walton" who can use the equipment.

Farris said deputies are still searching for Hale, who is 5 feet, 7 inches tall, weighs about 160 pounds and has reddish gray hair. Anyone with any information about his whereabouts is asked to call the Walton County Sheriff 's Office at 267-2000.

Robison said her agency is seeking volunteers to help with the program and is asking for donations to help offset the costs.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

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