Your child has wandered away from home. You know they’re drawn to water and can’t swim. Your elderly parent disappeared at the grocery store and you can’t find them.
A family’s first call is often to Project Lifesaver, according to James City County Police Department Master Officer Alan McDowell.
Those hypothetical scenarios have been real for many families, McDowell said. He spearheads the Project Lifesaver program for James City County and serves as a rescuer.
Twenty years ago, the program with the singular goal of reuniting lost loved ones with their families swept across Hampton Roads. Initially, the program focused on those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but in recent years it has broadened its view to include those with other cognitive impairments, such as autism, McDowell said.
"We've noticed children with autism wander,” Project Lifesaver coordinator for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office Shawn Kekoa-Dearhart said. “They have the energy and drive to run. So, we do have quite a few children on the program.”
Every participant receives a Project Lifesaver VHF radio emitter in a waterproof wristband. It looks like an oversized plastic watch, but the real magic is unseen: The device emits a radio signal at a precise frequency that can be tracked with a handheld radar system.
Participants also get a radio receiver used to check the device’s battery and a phone number to call every 30 to 60 days so a police officer can change the device’s battery.
Besides calls to install new batteries, McDowell said few people ever need to call him to rescue their loved ones. His most recent rescue was about two or three years ago, when an elderly man with a cognitive impairment slipped away from his family at the New Town Walmart Neighborhood Market, McDowell said.
The family searched for the man for nearly 20 minutes before they called McDowell.
McDowell, who was nearby at the time, found the man after about 3 minutes. The officer had to use an omnidirectional radar to ping a Project Lifesaver transponder on the man’s wrist. He found the man leaning against a wall, but obscured from view, at a restaurant less than a quarter mile away.
In York, the last search was in the summer of 2018, Kekoa-Dearhart said. Deputies on patrol found the missing person before a Project Lifesaver could even arrive on the scene.
About 80 of the devices are in service in Greater Williamsburg, according to Kekoa-Dearhart, McDowell and Williamsburg Police Department’s Project Lifesaver coordinator Aundrea Holiday.
The national average time to rescue someone with a Project Lifesaver radio emitter is 20 minutes. Since the program was founded in Chesapeake in 1999, it has helped rescue more than 3,000 people, according to the organization’s website.
In Williamsburg and James City and York counties, the program is offered to residents at no cost, according to the Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn, McDowell and York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shelley Ward.
There are few restrictions on the participants. In James City and Williamsburg, a caretaker must be within a reasonable distance and present with the participant at all times. York’s rules are similar, except they prohibit participants from operating a vehicle.
“If they were to get into a car they could be in Richmond,” Kekoa-Dearhart said. The further away a person is, the more difficult and time-consuming it can be to find a person.
For Susan Reese, a 54-year-old prekindergarten teacher at a James City County church, the program is reassuring. Her son Paul has an autism spectrum disorder.
Paul cannot communicate well. He doesn’t have the environmental awareness to be able to cross the street without help. He loves water, but can’t swim, Reese said.
Paul wandered away from his Neck-O-Land Road home once. After that, Reese had a security system installed in her home that announces when a door or window has opened. She also signed Paul up for Project Lifesaver.
“When you go on vacation, they have Project Lifesaver,” Reese said as Paul sang along with “Finding Nemo” in her James City County home. “When you’re in an unfamiliar place, especially being nonverbal, there’s a huge difference between a verbal person and a nonverbal person. (Paul) is such a target.”
When Reese asked her son what her phone number was, he struggled to answer. When she asked him where they lived, he didn’t know the address. She has worked with the James City police to create a new program for parents with autistic children.
For Julia Ward, 40, of James City County, she enrolled her twin sons in the program after they escaped the house when they were 4. They both have an autism spectrum disorder.
“Of course being twins they went two different directions,” Ward said. “We did an immediate check inside the house and then we did an immediate check outside the house. We caught one about 100 feet before the golf course pond. That's when I called 911, they arrived very quickly. I estimate (the other) twin was missing 8-10 minutes.”
As a police officer pulled into the driveway for her home, Ward’s husband found her other son nearby in a thicket.
“Once your child gets out and you experience that terrifying fear,” Ward said. “If he were to get out he wouldn't be able to tell them his name. I think those things go through your mind that things can go bad very, very quickly. (Project Lifesaver) eases the anxiety so much.”
How to sign up
To sign up for Project Lifesaver contact your local police department.
James City County Police Department: Project Lifesaver coordinator Master Officer Alan McDowell can be reached at 757-253-1800.
Williamsburg Police Department: Project Lifesaver coordinator Officer Aundrea Holiday can be reached at 757-259-7212.
York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office: Call 757-890-3642 and ask to speak Deputy First Class Shawn Kekoa-Dearhart.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.