Editor’s note: Each Monday, Alabama NewsCenter is highlighting stories from the Alabama Power Foundation‘s annual report. Each story spotlights an organization or initiative the foundation supported in 2019.
An Alzheimer’s patient has wandered off. An autistic child goes missing. It happens every day. And as the clock ticks and caregivers worry, chances of recovery can slip away.
The statistics have traditionally been grim. An average search time of nine hours; 33% of lost loved ones never found or found too late. Taxpayer dollars expended on uncertain outcomes. And families left with a desperate sense of loss and failure.
There’s an answer. And it’s working.
Through Project Lifesaver, a single bracelet, operating on radio frequency, can track a missing person. Time needed: 15 to 20 minutes from the first missing person report to the nearest sheriff’s office. Success rate: 100%. That’s right, perfect score, every time.
Capt. Gene Saunders remembers the first rescue in 2001. “This system was unproven and untested,” said Project Lifesaver’s founder and CEO, now living in Florida. “We got a call and recovered a gentleman with dementia in 1 1/2 minutes. We had searched for him once before and it took nine hours and 85 officers. My thinking was to apply the same principle from wildlife tracking to people: Just give them something to wear to allow us to receive a radio signal. Suddenly, word of mouth spread the news and we had sheriff’s offices calling in, wanting the program for their people.”
One of those interested states was Alabama.
And one of the early supporters of that effort was the 1,500-member Energizers retiree group founded through the Alabama Power Foundation. “The Energizers have played such a large role. To this day they remain Project Lifesaver’s largest contributor in the United States. Nobody has surpassed what the Energizers have done and the money they have raised. Isn’t that cool?” said Saunders.
It’s also cool that Alabama was the second state to attain 100% participation in every county. Project Lifesaver is now helping in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, seven Canadian provinces and, soon, Western Australia. After a few years balancing police SWAT rescue work and the new rescue receivers, Saunders opted to run Project Lifesaver full time.
In Alabama, Cpl. Kent Smith is handling his helicopter rescues on rapids, rivers and mountains as a state trooper and his role as state coordinator of Project Lifesaver. “It’s a good day on the job when we can find someone quickly and successfully,” Smith said. “Ultimately, I feel called to do this. I love serving people. I’ve been a trooper for 18 years and Project Lifesaver has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done over the years.”
Here’s another example of how the program works. Smith recalled a phone call at 9 p.m. on a pitch-dark evening. An Alzheimer’s patient had wandered off, but to the east, the west, the north or south? Nobody knew. “Listening to the sound of the receiving unit, we were able to pick up the signal and follow the man, deep into the woods where he was simply sitting beside a tree. We never would have found him with traditional methods. Our transmitters can extend over a mile away and our people just walked up and gently took him home.”
Bob O’Daniel, who retired after 15 years as Energizers state president, remains Project Lifesaver’s administrator in Elmore County, where he personally changes batteries in bracelets every 90 days and tracks success stories. “I’m now just a concerned citizen who does work in the name of Alabama Power and the Energizers,” he said.
In the line of duty, he witnessed a triumph while visiting Don and Teresa on Lake Jordan. As O’Daniel and Don chatted, Teresa, suffering from dementia, vanished. “Don said, ‘She’s gone! She’s gone again!’ and raced out the door heading toward the lake. He’s so afraid she will go to the water,” O’Daniel said. “I walked to the receiver unit in my car and aimed it the direction we thought she’d gone, and wouldn’t you know she was just five houses up, completely out of sight, visiting. Don had run right past there.”
O’Daniel also remembered an instance in which an autistic child wandered from home and family. “It took some time to find him because he wasn’t yet wearing a bracelet,” O’Daniel said. “You can be certain he’s wearing one now. She doesn’t let him out of her sight without it.”
The technology is costly. On average, Lifesaver starter packages run about $4,000, which includes only a few bracelets for distribution. Buying each additional bracelet is about $400. Alabama has an estimated 100,000 Alzheimer’s patients, relatively few of them connected to the bracelets. That’s where the funding from the Alabama Power Energizers comes in. “The larger counties often have more resources to buy bracelets, and families who can afford them will shoulder that cost willingly,” said Smith. “But it’s the very poor, rural counties that need so much help”
Through selling pecan pies, staging bake sales and conducting auctions, the 11 Energizers chapters statewide have given, over time, about $125,000 to the Project Lifesaver cause. “This is a security blanket for the caregiver,” said O’Daniel, a former Human Resources/Benefits staffer at Alabama Power. “It’s a wonderful thing to know you can find someone.”
With the generosity of groups like the Energizers, the continuing needs will be met. And people whose way home is obscured in the shadows of memory will not lose their path for long. Saunders, who has visited the Alabama Project Lifesaver organizers, said, “I feel that a lot of agencies and states could look at Alabama and see what’s being done to protect our vulnerable citizens.
“The Energizers have been in the forefront, and the success certainly wouldn’t have been achieved without them.”