Implementing Programs to Keep Citizens Safe
By Douglas A. Bryant
One of the most disturbing calls any agency receives involves possible danger to the elderly or to individuals with mental challenges. Stories related to those suffering from dementia wandering away from their homes appear too often on news programs. Law enforcement’s most important responsibilities are serving and protecting citizens. To that end, agencies participate in and develop programs based on the needs of their community. The Richmond County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office implemented strategies to ensure that it takes every precaution to keep residents safe.
RICHMOND COUNTY’S EFFORTS
Richmond County is located on the Northern Neck Peninsula in the eastern portion of Virginia. The Rappahannock River forms the southern boundary of this 192-square-mile rural community, home to approximately 9,000 residents. The local sheriff’s office employs 17 sworn members and receives over 8,000 calls each year for law enforcement and emergency services. The agency currently offers two specific initiatives aimed at safeguarding particular groups of citizens.
In Pittsylvania County, Virginia, a 45-yearold man suffering from a traumatic brain injury became lost and disoriented. A deputy sheriff specially trained and equipped by Project Lifesaver located the man 1.5 miles from his home within 20 minutes. A traditional search normally would have involved the time and expense to taxpayers of up to 264 searchers and 924 man-hours.1 In another case, a 79-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease left his house in Chesapeake, Virginia, driving his truck and could not find his way back home. After searching the neighborhood, a police helicopter was called in with a Project Lifesaver team and equipment. In just 35 minutes, the helicopter located the man via the signal transmitted from his bracelet. He was found 14 miles from his home. Before joining Project Lifesaver, the man had wandered off and was missing for 2½ days.
Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization founded by public safety officers, aids people with Alzheimer’s disease and related mentally dysfunctional disorders (ARMD), such as Downs Syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and autism, and their families by distributing electronic bracelets to those with the history of or a potential for wandering (72 percent of wanderers repeat). Each bracelet has a unique frequency that can be tracked and located by specially trained search and rescue personnel using receivers tuned to the appropriate frequency. The transmitters can locate victims in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days. In over 1,800 searches, no serious injuries or deaths have been reported and recovery times average less than 30 minutes. Further, when these victims are located, they can be disoriented, anxious, or untrusting. Project Lifesaver teams are specially trained on how to approach these people, gain their trust, and put them at ease to transport them home. Such individuals are victims just as if they were criminally attacked because ARMD physically robs them of their mental faculties, dignity, health, and, ultimately, their lives.
The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office currently distributes Project Lifesaver bracelets to local residents. Families or caregivers interested in the program contact the department and submit information on behalf of ARMD individuals. The project coordinator reviews each request for possible acceptance.
The Safeguard Program
In 2004, the sheriff implemented the Safeguard Program, which links emergency dispatchers with elderly residents via phone calls on a daily basis. Senior citizens who live alone and are interested in participating complete paperwork with contact information to be included in this free service. Dispatchers call participants each day to check on their safety and address any concerns. If they do not connect with each senior on the list, they continue attempts to contact them until located. One resident described that when a deputy came to check on her one night, he eventually found her at a bridge game with 80 other women in a neighboring county. “Suddenly, a deputy appeared and asked for me. They’re always cheerful,” she said. Another added, “They’re [officers] always forgiving when we forget.” A local minister attended one of the program’s events and advised, “It’s one of a kind and offers a real sense of security to know that if they can’t find you, they’ll come and find you.” The program has genuine benefits for seniors living alone, whether they have local relatives or rely on out-of-town family.
All law enforcement agencies face budget restraints today. Therefore, obtaining additional resources can present unavoidable burdens on localities. Funding can be obtained from a variety of sources, such as private citizens, churches, corporations, and civic organizations. All donations to Project Lifesaver are used for program equipment, rescues, and educational expenses.
Law enforcement leaders consistently search for and evaluate unique and innovative ways to protect and serve citizens in their communities. Often, groups of people with specific needs inspire private and public agencies to employ additional methods and programs to ensure residents’ safety.
The Richmond County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office and local citizens have discovered the numerous benefits to incorporating Project Lifesaver and the Safeguard Program to meet the challenges of protecting individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related mentally dysfunctional disorders and guaranteeing the safety of elderly citizens. Proactive planning can prepare agencies if unfortunate scenarios of ARMD individuals wandering from their home or elderly residents who live alone becoming incapacitated occur in their jurisdiction. Most of all, having such resources and strategies in place not only may help provide families with a sense of security but save lives as well.
1 Information in this article regarding Project Lifesaver is available from http://www.projectlifesaver.org.