LYNCHBURG – Many families who have loved ones with Alzheimer's, severe cases of autism or Down syndrome often struggle with them wandering away from home.
Many in the region already use Project Lifesaver, a bracelet that uses a tracking device to locate patients in case of an emergency.
The Project Lifesaver bracelet has saved 92 people in Lynchburg alone since its inception in 2002. All 92 people were rescued in fewer than 30 minutes, and now with the introduction of drone technology, that response time could be faster and safer for first responders.
Having one of the new drones is like keeping a helicopter in the trunk of a police car. The drone has all of the capabilities of a chopper, without the cost or difficulties an actual helicopter might face in severe weather. The drone is equipped with a sensor that can find a missing Alzheimer’s patient up to five miles away. The method police use now requires a manned radar that can only detect up to a mile. Lynchburg Sheriff Don Sloan says the drone looks for the project life saver bracelet.
“So it's fantastic technology. It's working great now, but this is a step up," Sloan said.
It's an issue that hits home for Tommy Carter who moved to work for project lifesaver after 32 years of service on the Lynchburg Police Department. He was there to rescue the first Lynchburg woman who had Project Lifesaver. He says without the bracelet, she would have died. The elderly woman was found only wearing a robe in the middle of the winter. Using the bracelet, she was located in only eight minutes. He has first-hand knowledge of how dangerous Alzheimer’s can be.
"When my dad had Alzheimer's, there was no Project Lifesaver. So we just basically had to figure out where to find him. We had to figure out what to do when he started developing wondering traits, because we didn't know,” Carter said.
That is a problem families now have help with thanks to Project Lifesaver.
"Should they wonder away, those individuals that are called out to do the searches, they have a receiving unit, and they dial in that specific transmitter unit number and begin their concentric unit searches. They've got that that chirp and then they start zoning in on that sound until they locate that individual,” Sloan said.
Sloan asked Project Lifesaver representatives to demonstrate the new drone technology Thursday for local law enforcement including, the Lynchburg Police Department, and sheriff’s departments from Bedford, Nelson and Amherst County.
Sloan says ground searches can not only be dangerous for first responders, but often take more time. Gary Reynolds, a former local law enforcement officer in Forest and Bedford who now works for Project Lifesaver says drones are the answer for saving more lives.
"The statistics are if someone is missing for more than 24 hours there is a 50-50 chance that they will be severely injured or deceased,” Reynolds said.
Considering the local aging population, drone technology is a tool they say is desperately needed as these type of calls become more frequent.
Sloan says cost is the main obstacle. The estimated cost for Lynchburg to purchase the new drone as well as training is at $60,000. Although nothing is final, Sloan says agencies are pursing splitting the cost and services of one drone shared throughout multiple agencies in the area.