For loved ones with cognitive disorders who could wander away, Project Lifesaver International offers an effective solution. Founded in 1999 by former police officer Gene Saunders, the nonprofit works with local public safety agencies to provide technology— a watch-like device worn on the wrist or ankle of a patient—that contains a radio tracking device so the individual can be found quickly by law enforcement. The tracking device, which has a waterproof case, cuts the search time dramatically, from what might take hours or even days, to a matter of minutes. ABILITY spoke with Saunders about how he came up with the idea, how the program works through an enrollment program with public agencies, and his own experiences with successful rescues.
ABILITY: Can you give me some background on how you met actor Max Gail?
Gene Saunders: Yeah. As you probably know, we concentrate our programs on those with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, children with autism and Down syndrome should they wander, making it possible for public safety to track and locate them. My wife has been a fan of General Hospital for a number of years, and, of course, I was a fan of Max when he was on Barney Miller. She watches it pretty much every day, and one day she was telling me that Max was on General Hospital playing Sonny’s father, and, by the way, he has Alzheimer’s in the show. So I watched it a couple of times and I thought, you know, since he is displaying Alzheimer’s on the show, it might be good to reach out and see if he would become an ambassador for us. He’s well-known, he’s well-respected, and playing that type of part, he has a tremendous reach to people to make them aware. So we reached out to him and asked him and he agreed, and that’s how it all came about.
ABILITY: Yes, he’s a really wonderful person. He has been to many of our ABILITY House builds. Have you spent time with him and gotten to know him a little bit?
Saunders: Only when he spent a week with us at the conference. It was very impressive, the time he was with us.
ABILITY: We’ve known him for more than 25 years. He’s supported so many great initiatives over the years.
Saunders: We really appreciate what he’s doing and the fact that he is connecting with us.
ABILITY: Can you give a quick background on how you got involved in Project Lifesaver?
Saunders: I was a police officer in Chesapeake, Virginia, up until 2001, and during that time I was the commanding officer of special operations, which included search and rescue and SWAT. And probably around the early and mid-’90s, we noticed we were having more incidents with Alzheimer’s patients wandering. At that time, very few people, including us, knew much about searching for Alzheimer’s patients, so we used the old tried-and-true methods, which are not always adequate when you’re searching for those people. Our searches were not giving us the positive results we would have hoped for.
Around 1994, the sheriff’s office took over the search and rescue portion and asked me to volunteer to head it up, which I did, so I was wearing two hats, police and sheriff. We still had the same situation, but in 1997-98, I received a flyer from the sheriff who had been to a conference about wildlife tracking. The thought occurred to me that if you can do this with wildlife, then you can do this with people, if we identified those who may have a tendency to wander and use a radio tracking wristband on them. If it becomes a situation where we’re called to search for them, we can just tune in to their frequency, which would eliminate a lot of the manpower we’ve had to use, and the time that it has taken to recover them, and sometimes not successfully.
So I met with a manufacturer, and they were more than inclined to work with us. Then we started a pilot program with a grant from a local hospital in Chesapeake, and the rest is history. We devised a training and qualification program for the people using the equipment, a familiarization program for them so they could recognize and deal with the people they were going to be searching for, and we started getting calls from all over the country about agencies wanting to start this program. In 2001, I retired from the police department and took this on full-time. We’ve now grown to almost 1,600 agencies in 50 states and Canada. Western Australia is now working with the program. That’s how we got the thing started.
ABILITY: You have two different areas you have to deal with. One is getting the organizations to understand and buy into the program, but you also have to let the community know it exists. How did you go about accomplishing the latter?
Saunders: A lot of it was through trade shows, meeting with departments and them hearing about it. It’s been more of a grassroots movement. We are a 501(c)3. We don’t have a big budget for advertising, so we do a lot of word of mouth, and the agencies that are members do a lot of word of mouth, putting out there that this program exists. Citizens start hearing about it, asking their agencies to join. That’s been pretty much it. We don’t have any TV ads or big newspaper ads or anything like that. It’s been pretty much a grassroots movement.
ABILITY: It sounds like it’s been successful. Do you know how many people are using the system?
Saunders: I could give you an estimate, because the numbers would go up and down depending on the agencies. We’re estimating somewhere in the neighborhood of about 75,000.
ABILITY: Oh, wow, that’s a large number. What’s the pricing? How does that work?
Saunders: As I said, we’re a nonprofit. We do charge the departments and the agencies for the equipment. They in turn will either give the equipment to somebody, depending on their budget, or they fundraise. If we obtain the funding, we will give grants to departments and to persons so they can become part of the program, or we have partnered with some other nonprofit programs that have provided grant money so agencies and individuals can become part of the program.
ABILITY: For example, if you worked with the Alzheimer’s Association, one of the affiliates around the country, they may help with fundraising and provide the tracking at no charge?
Saunders: Yes. We have that often around the country. Some agencies will adopt a program and they will charge a fee to the user or the client. As a rule, we tell them not to charge more than $25 a month, because we don’t want this to become so expensive that it’s out of reach of the people who need it most. But a lot of them will go out and fundraise, or they’ll find it in their budget to provide these things. Like you said, there are a number of other agencies, like the Alzheimer’s Foundation, the Alzheimer’s Association, Autism Speaks, the Autism Society, and the National Autism Association—all of those have contributed funding to us and to individuals and agencies so that they can become part of the program.
ABILITY: It’s a great model, to have these other nonprofits work with you. Do you have any success stories you could share?
Saunders: For a number of years, I did searching. I’ve got a couple stories I can give you. The very first one that happened, after we had started the program in Chesapeake, we had a gentleman who had what was called “medicinal dementia.” He was a cancer patient, and whenever he took his medicine, he would experience dementia. He would wander and get lost. On one particular occasion, he was gone for nine hours before he was spotted by a railroad engineer in head-high grass and bush. It took us about nine hours between the start of the search and when we recovered him. We put him into the program, and about three months after the program started, he got out and we got the call. As I was going into the neighborhood, I received a signal from his bracelet, so I got out and started tracking the signal and discovered him in a closet underneath a stairwell in an apartment building. He had locked the door behind him. It took us about a minute and a half to get to him and get him out.
Now you’re looking at a minute and a half with two people searching, me and another searcher, with equipment, as opposed to about 80-some people who were in the first search for him that took nine hours. Now we did it with two people in a minute and a half.
Saunders: That was what kicked it into high gear, when other agencies started hearing about that rescue. There was a rescue in Alabama a few years back, a client with Down syndrome had gone to a riverbank that had high banks on each side of the river and had become entangled in vines and had fallen over and was hanging upside-down on the side of the riverbank, out of sight. I was told that they probably would never have seen or found him had it not been for the radio signal from his bracelet that led them to him.
We get reports all the time. We had one in Virginia where an 89-year-old Alzheimer’s patient went out one Saturday night about nine o’clock. It had been raining for several days. I remember this one vividly, because it was in Pennsylvania County. She had wandered about a half to three-quarters of a mile. When they started searching for her, they tracked the signal and came into a large open field that was nothing but mud. As they walked out, the signal tracked them to a spot where they had to reach down and touch her to recognize that there was a person there.
Saunders: They said had it not been for the signal they were tracking, they would never have seen her or found her. It was nighttime, and she had fallen into the mud and apparently in trying to get up, rolled around and had covered herself completely in mud to where if you’d been walking by her, you would not have seen her.
ABILITY: Those are some compelling stories! So the system works like a watch?
Saunders: Much like a watch, yes. It’s worn on the wrist or the ankle.
ABILITY: Does it function like a watch as well?
Saunders: No, it doesn’t. It has a radio transmitter inside of a case that’s water-resistant. The transmitter sends a radio signal once every second, 24 hours a day. It is not monitored. The only time when we would look for that signal is if a person is missing, and we have been notified by the caregiver that they are missing. It’s not like we’re watching over them every minute. But once we get into the area where they’re missing from, then we turn on the radio receivers and tune in to that frequency to pick up the radio signal.
ABILITY: Is it easy to take off? Have there been occasions when that’s happened?
Saunders: It has to be cut off. It stays on 24 hours a day. They take showers or baths with it. To change the battery, which is about every 60 days, you have to cut it off and take the battery out of the back of it and put a new battery in and then put a new band on it. It functions with hospital-type bands.
ABILITY: So there has to be someone who can service it, at least to the point of putting a new battery in every 60 days?
Saunders: Yes. A lot of agencies do that with their personnel. There are some caregivers who do it, and the agencies will check every so often to make sure it’s being done properly.
ABILITY: That sounds good. Overall, how many rescues have you done?
Saunders: I would say that right now we’ve done over 3,600 rescues during our 20 years.