By Wendy Bulawa Agudelo
On a lovely afternoon in Sherborn, 10-year-old Dean Howell was hiking with his caretaker, when he suddenly ran off and disappeared into the brush. For most parents or caretakers, this show of a child’s independence or precociousness is little more than a delay or inconvenience. Yet, for parents of children with special needs—such as autism, Down syndrome or deafness whereby the child may be unable to respond to their name, avoid eye contact, or lack the cognitive strength to navigate their way back or to assistance, the situation can be more dire.
News reports are generated monthly about the senseless loss of individuals with cognitive impairment due to wandering. Howell, who has autism and is non-verbal, was found unharmed -- in less than 20 minutes-- due to a nationwide program called Project Lifesaver.
Founded in 1999 as a program of the Search and Rescue group at the Chesapeake, Va. Sheriff’s office, the non-profit organization specializes in search and rescue programs, conducts mandatory training, and provides certification, ongoing management and support to public safety agencies that enroll in the LoJack SafetyNet/Project Lifesaver service.
Under the program, individuals at risk of wandering are voluntarily outfitted with wrist or ankle bands that hold battery-operated radio transmitters. The transmitter emits a Radio Frequency (RF) signal used to pinpoint precise location and track the person. The technology powering the solution is similar to the service used by thousands of Americans to protect their vehicles—LoJack. LoJack’s SafteyNet System is employed by Project Lifesaver as a means to locating a person—rather than an automobile.
“It’s a great program,” said Dr. William Knight, deputy superintendent of community support, Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office. “Families of children with autism or Down syndrome can definitely benefit and the program’s statistics are compelling. Out of nearly 2,000 searches completed nationally using SafetyNet, a 100 percent success rate is reported.”
Under the direction of Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti, the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department was the first local group to adopt Project Lifesaver in New England. Sheriff Bellotti and his team researched the program for six months prior to implementing it as a part of the agency’s expanded community programs. Since then, six members from the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department have become instrumental training facilitators for dozens of agencies throughout the Eastern seaboard—having trained 39 jurisdictions in Massachusetts as well as others in Rhode Island, Southern New Hampshire, and 7,700 officers in Philadelphia, Penn.
Dr. Knight also indicated that the Norfolk County Sheriff’s department has leveraged Project Lifesaver 20 times since its implementation in June 2005—and that of the 65 clients that use the service, 50 percent are children.
Typical costs to enroll a loved one today include a $99 one-time enrollment fee combined with a $30/month (one dollar a day) fee to maintain proper battery and unit operation. In addition, local agencies strive to defray costs to families by applying for grants and requesting private donations from community members. And, due to its unprecedented success, Project Lifesaver was recently awarded an $890,000 government grant to continue its efforts to bring loved ones home safely.
As Project Lifesaver has been successfully deployed across 47 states, families of children that tend to wander now also have freedom to travel. Knight said that local agencies collaborate with clients and safety agencies where their clients travel to insure mutual aid --should it be needed.
“Many parents know how quickly a child can dart into a store or underneath a clothing rack,” said Knight. “Imagine the fear a family goes through with a child that constantly wanders off. With Project Lifesaver, families no longer need to limit their travel as they now have a service that provides tremendous peace of mind.”
Wendy Bulawa Agudelo serves as a freelance features writer and special needs liaison for P&K. She is mom to three young children and resides on the North Shore.