Bracelet tracking system best for finding at-risk people

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Project Lifesaver, the premier search and rescue program operated by public safety agencies. Project Lifesaver runs increased in 2022 with 22 families in the county taking part with participants ranging from 4 years old to 80 years old. Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

HANCOCK COUNTY — For the many families who have at-risk loved ones prone to wandering or getting lost, local law enforcement officials offer a program that can get the missing person home as soon as possible. With growth in the county, officials say it’s not unexpected they’ll continue to see more families sign up for a tool called Project Lifesaver (PLS) which can help local officials find missing and endangered people via a bracelet tracking device.

Project Lifesaver is a search-and-rescue program operated by public safety agencies and is strategically designed for “at-risk” individuals who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering. Participants get a bracelet with a small transmitter which helps first responders locate the person in the event they go missing.

The number of families in the county who take part in the program is continuing to grow steadily since local officials first started using PLS in 2020. The primary mission of Project Lifesaver is to provide timely response to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children with the propensity to wander due to a cognitive condition.

The county, through officials with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, currently has 22 total participants on Project Lifesaver, including three families through the Greenfield Police Department.

In 2022, there were 85 Project Lifesaver calls entered with the HCSD, which included changing the batteries, meeting with families and more. That number increased from 67 calls in 2021.

Captain Robert Harris of the HCSD noted the participants taking part in the program range in age from 4 years old to 80 years old, and officials say the program not only gives parents and caregivers peace of mind, but can also save lives.

Corporal Mark Galbraith with the HCSD coordinates the program for the county and said, so far, they’ve only had one true callout for a missing child who is on the PLS system since starting the program three years ago.

“The child was found within minutes of deputies arriving on scene with the tracking device, that called the receiver which communicates with the radioactive transmitter in the bracelet on the child or person,” Galbraith said. “The family was very thankful for the for the quick response in helping to locate their son, and for having their child on the PLS program.”

Gailbraith noted that he wants the program to continues to grow in the county and is hoping to bring other police and fire departments on board in the near future, when time allows him to organize a training session.

“We currently have nine deputies who are trained to replace the batteries, complete maintenance on the units, and use the tracking equipment,” Harris said.

The equipment has a transmitter participants must be wearing, which transmits over a mile, sometimes two, to help officials locate the individual who goes missing.

“We use the current transmitters because they use radio waves, which travel better than the GPS signal on newer units,” Harris said. “The GPS signal can be easily obstructed if the participant is under a canopy of trees or even in a cornfield when crops are up.”

The batteries are the big key in the location units and must be changed every 60 days. Replacing the batteries does take a little bit of time — between 10-15 minutes per person.

Harris noted the effectiveness of the system and the success of finding the participant are directly related to the amount of time the person has been missing before the call is made to law enforcement.

“The faster we can respond, the better chance we have to locate the person using the Project Lifesaver receiver,” Harris said.

Capt. Chuck McMichael from the GPD said they currently serve three children in the Greenfield area through Project Lifesaver.

“We have been fortunate that none of them have gone missing while on the program,” McMichael said.

McMichael noted that, despite the advances in technology, the system they work with uses old-fashion technology that has proven to be the most reliable. He, like Harris, noted the use of radio frequency is just better in missing person cases for people on Project Lifesaver rather than GPS.

“While there have been many great advances, GPS is still not reliable enough when a life is potentially on the line,” McMichael said.

He explained that GPS relies on satellites and that the signal can be easily blocked.

“For example, I have satellite radio in my car,” McMichael said. “When I pull into the drive-thru line at Starbucks, I lose the signal. This is not what we want when looking for a missing child.”

The Project Lifesaver radio frequency system transmits a tone every second that doesn’t get blocked by objects. Instead of being completely blocked by a building, the tone bounces off of it.

“We still get a signal from that bounce,” McMichael said. “GPS signals don’t bounce — they require direct line of sight.”

Another good thing about the Project Lifesaver program, McMichael noted they are fortunate in that Sheriff Brad Burkhart has agreed to pay for all of the equipment and costs associated with the program.

“Everything for Project Lifesaver is being paid for with funds from the inmates’ commissary purchases,” McMichael said. “Essentially, the inmates at the Hancock County Jail fund this program — our clients pay absolutely nothing.”

People with conditions prone to wandering like Autism or Alzheimer’s can sign up to be part of the program. Any family needing assistance should contact the Sheriff’s Department or the GPD.