Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office’s success in promoting the safety of people with mental disabilities earned them congratulations — and a prize — from the Burke Rotary Club.
On Friday, Dec. 16, the Burke Rotary presented the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office with a $2,000 check for their efforts with Project Lifesaver, a project designed to keep track of people with autism, Down syndrome, Alzheimer's and similar conditions.
"The one thing that was holding us back from not expanding earlier was funding," said Fairfax County Sheriff Stan Barry. Project Lifesaver currently serves 31 clients, said Sergeant Derek DeGeare, but according to Barry, the program has a long waiting list. The Rotary Club donation will help the Sheriff's Office equip a helicopter with
radio tracking technology, said Barry.
The practice of using radio tracking technology to locate missing people began with the Stokes County Mountain Rescue team in North Carolina. In 1999, the Chesapeake Sheriff's Office in Virginia turned this technology into a formal program that spread across the state, said DeGeare. The Fairfax County Sheriff's Office adopted the program in December 2004.
Project Lifesaver outfits people with personalized wristbands, similar to a watch, with radio transmitters that send out a pulse every second. Each client receives a specific number along the frequency band, said DeGeare. If the client wanders away from home and caretakers are unable to find him or her, they call the Sheriff's Office and 911. The tracking team at the Sheriff's Office looks up the client's last known location and immediately mobilizes to find them, he said.
The tracking team then uses two types of antennae to find the client. The first antenna, located on top of a vehicle, has a limited range and does not show direction, but helps the tracking team start working in a circle pattern to close in on the client. On the ground, the tracing team then use a hand-held antenna with a better range and direction to point them toward the client's location.
"Project Lifesaver has a 100 percent success rate nationally," said DeGeare. Before the program, he said, it would take an average of nine hours and $300,000 to locate individuals who had wandered off. Now, it takes 30 minutes.
"This [program] significantly cuts the cost to the taxpayers, as well as the time it takes to find people," said DeGeare.
DEPUTIES HAVE had about 15 cases since the beginning of the Project Lifesaver last year, he said. The frequency of its use depends on several factors, such as how old a client is or how far along he or she is in a disease such as Alzheimer's. In Alzheimer's patients, he said, wandering progresses as the disease develops. But clients with autism or Down syndrome tend to be more active the younger they are, he said, so the Sheriff's Office generally gets more calls for these clients.
"The fortunate thing is, caregivers are doing a good job taking care of loved ones," said DeGeare. "It's what the project is all about."
The Burke Rotary raised the money for Project Lifesaver through its biggest fund-raiser this year, selling French fries and Polish sausage at the Burke Centre Fall Festival, said president Jim Green. According to member Jon Allan, club members were inspired to fund Project Lifesaver after a member of the Sheriff's Office gave a presentation at one of Burke Rotary's weekly meetings.
"The Rotary motto has been, for years, 'Service above self,' and from what I've learned about the Sheriff's Office, that's what they're all about," said Green.
Burke Rotary member Ron Frederick said he hopes the award will start a partnership with the Sheriff's Office. "It's not the end, it's just the beginning," he said.
Many members of The Arc of Northern Virginia, a group for individuals with mental retardation, are also clients of Project Lifesaver, said Carrie Frey, incoming director of services for The Arc.
Project Lifesaver's greatest value lies in the peace of mind it gives families and caretakers of clients, said Cindy Daniel, director of mentoring and training for The Arc. Along with its success in locating clients, she said, Project Lifesaver also allows families of clients to develop a strong relationship with the Sheriff's Office.
"Independence is the key to getting people out into the community, but with that, they have to protect their safety," said Daniel.