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‘Project Lifesaver’ lives up to its name

By Staff | Jun 12, 2010

By TIFFANY REPECKI, trepecki@breezenewspapers.com
After Aldo Bertolini was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, it took about four years before the Cape Coral man began to walk off due to the disease.
“By 2004, he started to wander a little bit,” his wife, Dolores Bertolini, said.
Later that year, while the couple was attending a parade for Relay for Life, Dolores turned to her husband at one point and discovered Aldo was nowhere to be seen. He had wandered away. It took more than an hour to locate him.
“I was devastated because all I could think of was he was walking and that he could end up in a canal,” she said, adding that her husband had forgotten how to swim because of the Alzheimer’s.
That was not the only horror that played through her mind. Bertolini feared her husband would be accosted by someone and beaten for the few dollars in his wallet, or that he would wander into traffic and get hit by a passing car.
“I agonized so much it took me weeks to get over it,” she said.
It was about that time that Bertolini learned about Project Lifesaver.
Project Lifesaver is a program designed to track and locate individuals who wander due to Alzheimer’s, dementia, autism and Down Syndrome, as well as other related disorders. Project Lifesaver International provides equipment, training and support for groups that run the program in their communities.
Project Lifesaver employs the use of a wristband transmitter that is about the size of a watch and water resistant, which emits a unique radio signal 24 hours a day. The participant wears the wristband and if he or she wanders or becomes lost, a 911 call by the caregiver triggers a search using the signal.
Bertolini signed up Aldo, but did so through the Lee County Sheriff’s Office because the Cape Coral Police Department did not offer the program. Later, during her tenure as a city council member, she helped the CCPD adopt the program in 2008 with a $6,000 grant from the Cape Coral Community Foundation.
“I said, ‘There’s so many in Cape Coral that could use this,'” Bertolini said.
Angela Davis is one. The Cape mother has a 6-year-old daughter, Chloe, who is autistic and deaf. Davis, coincidentally, was attending a dinner for the Cape Community Foundation when she learned of Project Lifesaver.
According to Davis, a behavior of autism is fleeing. The family has taken precautions to prevent Chloe from getting out of the house unsupervised, like using combination locks on the doors and other safety measures, but there is always the chance that she could get out.
“How do you locate a child who can’t communicate, won’t ask for help and might actually be hidden?” Davis asked. “It puts the odds in your favor. It changes the game.”
The important thing is being able to track Chloe and doing so quickly.
“It really can mean the difference between life and death,” Davis said. “We worry about her hurting herself when we’re watching her. Even in the house, we panic when we can’t find her.”
Project Lifesaver also offers the family some peace of mind.
“Once she gets out there, she’s pretty defenseless,” Davis said, adding that her daughter would not be able to speak, hear or reason if she was alone and lost. “We know that we’re not defenseless. We have that security.”
According to Martha LaForest, a crime prevention specialist with the CCPD and administrator of Project Lifesaver, the program currently has 30 active participants. About 10 others are listed as non-active participants because they signed up, but then moved away or joined an assisted living facility.
She explained that there are criteria to sign up for Project Lifesaver. The participant must be willing to wear the transmitter 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It cannot be taken off because “it only works if they’re wearing it,” LaForest said. The client also has to have somebody with them at all times.
“This is not something that will take the place of the constant care of the caregiver,” she said. “If the person wanders, there will be nobody there to call and tell us that they wandered.”
LaForest added that the transmitter does not work like a GPS. Authorities cannot log onto a computer and track the wearer. When a participant goes missing, a search and rescue team enters the unique radio frequency signal into a receiver and it beeps as they get closer to the wristband transmitter.
The caregiver has to inform police that the person is missing for them to “plug in” the unique signal and go out in search of the person, she explained.
The average rescue time in the Cape is about 30 minutes.
Also, the caregiver must be willing to help authorities check the battery every day by using a transmitter tester provided by the program. To check the battery, the caregiver must use a tester to verify a light is blinking. If the light does not blink, a person will come out to service the transmitter.
“If you don’t have a battery, you don’t have a program,” LaForest said.
Once a month, the battery must be serviced, the wristband is replaced and the equipment must be checked to verify it is operating properly, she added.
“For caregivers, it gives them peace of mind. Peace of mind that if something happens and their loved one gets away from them, they have us to turn to to locate them in a timely fashion,” LaForest said.
Bertolini agreed that the program provides that to her.
“Project Lifesaver is exactly what it says,” she said. “It’s the comfort in knowing you have another tool to work with. I know that he (Aldo) will be found and he will be found in enough time before he can harm himself, and that’s the important thing.”
The program is run on donations and grant money. Participants are asked to pay $300 for the wristband and $10 monthly if they have the financial means to do so, but those who cannot pay are not turned away.
“We have enough transmitters in stock that we can loan them one,” LaForest said. “There’s no taxpayer dollars.”
Project Lifesaver International has more than 1,100 participating groups across the United States, Canada and Australia. According to its website, Project Lifesaver has performed more than 2,140 searches in the last 10 years with a 100 percent success rate.
“This is important because a lot of people are snowbirds and like to travel,” LaForest said, adding that the equipment in the program is interchangeable.
According to LaForest, sometimes participants forget what the wristband is and cut it off. If this occurs, a new one is simply provided to the participant.
She stressed that the important thing is to know when it is time to sign up.
“Caregivers must learn to recognize when it’s time to ask for help and enroll their loves ones in Project Lifesaver,” LaForest said.
Bertolini echoed that.
“It’s a good program for them to start thinking about,” she said. “You should not do what I did and wait until it happened.”
For more information on Project Lifesaver, contact Martha LaForest at the Cape Coral Police Department at 242-3710 or mlafores@capecoral.net.