Photo: Representatives from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office accept a $1,000 donation from the local pilot club at their Sept. 22 meeting. Pictured from left: Captain Josh Morgan, Public Information Investigator, Brian Smith, Pilots Club Secretary, Sherre McGinnis, Pilots Club President, Carolyn Hammond. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The Pilot Club of Gadsden donated $1,000 to the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office for Project Lifesaver and presented the check at its September 22 meeting.
The Sheriff’s Office received a matching check from the Etowah County Anchor Club for a total donation of $2,000.
Project Lifesaver is defined by the Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, Captain Josh Morgan, as “a system for tracking clients with Alzheimer’s, dementia or individuals with autism in the event they drift away from their caregiver.”
The program provides patients with waterproof locators on vinyl wristbands that can be radio-tracked by police if the patient is reported missing.
According to investigator Brian Smith, who oversees Etowah County’s Project Lifesaver program, all of the officers’ recent calls have ended in finding the missing person or their armband.
“We have always been successful [searching] on the floor,” Smith said. “We have a critical response team. So if we’re missing a Project Lifesaver customer, we’ve already assigned people to that team and we’re notified and we all scatter and then go to the crime scene. If something comes out about a Project Lifesaver client, the MPs get the information because they’re already on the way. Then our team is called to help with the search. So it’s a pretty quick answer.”
The devices have a radius of about two miles, not accounting for interference from surrounding structures.
“If we can circle the area we know (the customer has been seen), we can have multiple locators in range,” Smith said. “I think we have five of these and we can go from different angles and try to triangulate where they are. It was pretty efficient.”
Etowah County was able to join Project Lifesaver because of a donation from the Pilot Club some 30 years ago, and the club continues to raise funds for it.
“Because of COVID, we haven’t been able to do many fundraisers to help Project Lifesaver over the last two years,” said Pilot Club Secretary Sherre McGinnis. “All of our fundraisers are personal, so just leave it all out. And our membership is declining, but we’re working hard. We are so proud of the work you all do.”
Project Lifesaver is an international 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to “bringing loved ones home.” It works with law enforcement and other first responders, providing tracking devices and locators.
According to the Project Lifesaver website, the program is aimed at “individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to life-threatening wandering behaviors.” Etowah County has approximately 25 individuals, both children and adults, enrolled in its program.
“The devices are waterproof and intended to be worn at all times,” Smith said. “So they only come off when we go there to change the battery. We cut the band, change the battery and put on a brand new band every two months.”
Project Lifesaver is offered by county.
“There are other programs out there, and some of them are GPS-based that many counties will use — just better technology,” Smith said. “[Instead of] A location search is a GPS where you can pull up a screen and see exactly where that person is. We actually looked into something like that.”
Such a program could allow caregivers to locate patients themselves, potentially eliminating the need to call first responders.
Smith said while the sheriff’s office looks for new location services, the department will likely continue to use Project Lifesaver.
“We can hold onto that because there are patients who like to swim or go into the water or something like that,” he said. “Project Lifesaver’s are waterproof. The others are not; they are waterproof.”
According to Smith, Project Lifesaver devices just work better for certain customers. They are more difficult to remove and many young patients often interact with water.
“That’s great, but the GPS could point us in the right direction,” Morgan said. “If it got wet and went out, at least it put us in a better place. That’s what he means by maybe doing both; it’s not just one or the other. We don’t want to get rid of that because that’s good too, but maybe the GPS could help speed things up.”
Pilot International is a service organization with two primary sponsors: Project Lifesaver and BrainMinders, an elementary school education program that emphasizes the importance of wearing a helmet and protecting against brain injury.
The Anchor Club is a subsidiary of Pilot International that offers membership and even scholarships to middle, high school and college students. The local club’s donation of $1,000 was made by Anchor Club sponsor Sammye Hill in honor of a deceased member.
“The kids all knew about Project Lifesaver,” McGinnis said. “And so her parents asked that any donations that come in go to Project Lifesaver.”