'Project Lifesaver' to help find lost loved ones with special needs

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

For the last decade, York County Sheriff's Department Lt. David Godfrey has tracked lost children and adults the old-fashioned way — with the nose of his K-9 partners.

“While I am hard and fast a true K-9 guy," Godfrey said, "they can only do so much."

That's why the sheriff's department recently implemented a program that could give the K-9 Unit some help when it comes to finding children and adults with special needs who become separated from their caregivers.

York County Sheriff's Department Lt. David Godfrey shows off some of the hardware used in Project Lifesaver on May 9, 2022 which gives the department an additional tool to help track those with special needs who may wander away from home. Photo by Anthony Maenza, York Dispatch

"We’ve been looking into the program primarily because we have a pretty robust K-9 unit,” Godfrey said. “Recently we’ve gotten more and more calls for children that are autistic and things like that.”

The Sheriff’s Department is offering Project Lifesaver to residents of York County who are caring for loved ones who may have dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other special-needs conditions like Down syndrome and autism who may wander away or have difficulty communicating.

Through the program, participants receive a battery-operated bracelet — which resembles a wristwatch — that emits a tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day. Each bracelet has a unique radio frequency.

Godfrey said it is based on old radio technology and doesn’t have to depend on having a cellphone signal to work.

When someone in the program is reported missing — from a home or a care facility — local police can use that frequency to locate them.

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“We are looking for ways to improve services we can offer residents of the county to keep people with a diminished mental capacity safe," Godfrey said. "Our ultimate goal is to always bring someone home.”

The devices are offered free to residents of York County. To date, Godfrey said the sheriff’s department has 10 people enrolled in the program, adding a few referrals each month via word-of-mouth.

So far, Godfrey has received positive feedback from families who have participated in the program.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to family-wise, they are all very thankful that we are offering this to them,” Godfrey said. “It’s a little bit more added sense of safety and security for the family.”

Lt. David Godfrey, right, shares a bite of his own frozen treat with K-9 Captain Dargo, both with the York County Sheriff's Office, during Ice Cream with Dargo, a First Friday event hosted by LifePath Christian Ministries at their Cornerstone Ice Cream Shop in York City, Friday, July 6, 2018. Fingerprinting, face-painting and giant bubble-making were also offered by the York County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit & Community Services Division at the event. Dawn J. Sagert

Project Lifesaver is funded jointly by the sheriff’s department and the York County District Attorney’s Office. The department has 31 trained deputies who are certified to use the program.

The first step in placing someone in the program is to register them, which you can do on the York County Sheriff’s Department website (https://yorkcountypa.gov/875/Project-Lifesaver) or by e-mailing Godfrey at dmgodfrey@yorkcountypa.gov.

Guidelines for participating in the program:

  • Those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Down syndrome or other cognitive disorders and are prone to wander are eligible.
  • They must be currently cared for in a private residence.
  • Caregivers must be available to follow program guidelines.
  • Those persons in the program must not be permitted to operate a motor vehicle.

Once the application is made and reviewed, a deputy is sent to the residence to fit the person with the device, Godfrey said. 

For those in the autistic spectrum, who may not like wearing something around the neck, the device can be strapped on the wrist or the ankle and comes in various colors. Godfrey said those with autism respond better to certain colors and would be more prone to keep the device on.

“We do a lot of different things to try and make this program work,” Godfrey said.

An example of the bracelet participants in Project Lifesaver wear.

If an individual wanders from the home, the first thing the family does is call 911. They should tell the dispatcher they are a member of Project Lifesaver, who will notify the local police agency and the sheriff’s department.

Godfrey said they would respond with at least three deputies who would be operating the tracking devices to triangulate in an area where the search is being done. 

The tracking devices can cover a one-mile radius. A beeping sound lets deputies know the person wearing the device is within that radius.

“As we get closer, the beep gets louder, and it’s all based on the sound of the device,” Godfrey said.

Godfrey said they are looking to get funding to add a drone to the program, which would extend the tracking radius to 10 miles.

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The device can also work outside of York County. Godfrey said caregivers can check the Project Lifesaver website to find participating agencies in the area where they will be traveling. If their loved one gets lost, as long as the family has the frequency ID, they can contact an agency in that area for help.

Godfrey said each family member has an ID card with the person’s name, the transmitter ID number as well as cellphone numbers for Godfrey and assistant coordinator Sgt. Brian Rohrbaugh to call any time there are any issues.

Deputies will go back to a residence every 60 days to change the batteries in the devices and do maintenance on them. 

While deputies do check the devices on their visits to the homes, Godfrey said caregivers should check the device daily to make sure it is working. A battery tester is supplied to the caregiver to make sure the device has power, and they record that on a log that is given to them.

“Hopefully, they will only see us every two months when we do our battery exchanges,” Godfrey said.

— Reach Anthony Maenza at amaenza@yorkdispatch.com or @atmaenza on Twitter. 

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