Office Locations: Port St Lucie, FL and Chesapeake, VA
Individuals with cognitive disorders often become disoriented, confused, and afraid due to which people and places once familiar may not seem so, and they tend to wander away. The unpredictability of this behavior can lead to dangerous consequences and can weigh heavily on caregivers and family members. Besides, locating the missing person can take several hours or even days. That’s where Project Lifesaver International comes in.
Project Lifesaver International is a non-profit organization that has been working with first responder tools to locate missing or wandering individuals since 1999. Founded by former police offer Gene Saunders, the premier search and rescue program helps families protect their loved ones with cognitive disorders from the life-threatening behavior of wandering.
Getting Off the Grounds: Inception of The Idea Behind PLI
The idea to establish Project Lifesaver International started somewhere around the early and mid-90s. Back then incidents of Alzheimer’s patients wandering off were on the rise, and very few people knew about carrying out an effective search operation for them. Gene says that they relied on old tried-and-true methods which weren’t always accurate and didn’t deliver the positive results they would hope.
However, in 1997-98, things took a turn for the better, when Gene received a flyer from the sheriff who had been to a conference about wildlife tracking. Thinking of the incident, Gene recalls, “The thought occurred to me that if you can do this with wildlife, then you can do this with people. If we identified those with a tendency to wander, we can use a radio tracking wristband on them. So, in case of a situation where we’re called to search for them, we can just tune into their frequency, which would eliminate a lot of the manpower we’d otherwise use and the time taken to recover them.”
Finally, Gene met with a manufacturer and started a pilot program after receiving a grant from a local hospital in Chesapeake. They devised a training and qualification program for people using the equipment as well as a familiarization program to help them recognize and deal with the people they were going to be searching for.
Gene retired from the police department in 2001 and took Project Lifesaver full-time as its CEO. Today, Project Lifesaver International has grown to almost 1600 agencies in fifty states and Canada. Moreover, Western Australia is also working with the program.
Project Lifesaver: More Than Just a Wearable Locating Technology
The method that Project Lifesaver employs relies on proven radio technology and specially trained search and rescue teams. Individuals enrolled in the program use a wearable transmitter on their wrist or ankle that emits a unique frequency signal. In the event they go missing, first responders across the state can track the radio frequency to locate them quickly. As a part of the program, the first responders are trained from the community policing courses so that they are well aware of how to approach the client once found and bring them back with safety.
Well, innovation doesn’t stop there for Project Lifesaver International. In 2020, they unveiled a new technology – the PLI STAR System. Now, the devices feature basic radio frequency along with GPS capability as well, which allows rescuers to be more precise with locations.
Project Lifesaver International has also been named the winner of a Silver Stevie Award for Organization of the Year in the non-profit category. And in 2021, several people attended the Annual Project Lifesaver Conference to understand more about the technology and the importance of the program for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, Project Lifesaver is a subject matter expert and advisor on the wandering issue for: Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s disease (LEAD), National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Alzheimer’s Foundation, and the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA), the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners. Project Lifesaver also partners and collaborates with the following organizations on special needs wandering issues:
- Autism Speaks
- Bureau of Justice Assistance, Department of Justice’
- National Sheriff’s Association
- Council for Autism and Neurodiversity
- Pilot International
- National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners
- Unicorn Children’s Foundation
- Virginia Sheriff’s Association
- Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
- Virginia Airborne Search & Rescue Squad
The Journey So Far
When Project Lifesaver emerged as an organization in 1999, Gene had gotten a clear idea of the major void that needed to be filled regarding search, rescue, and protection for “At-Risk” individuals, who are prone to wandering off. Over the past twenty years, Project Lifesaver, under the direction of Gene Saunders, has been laser-focused on providing support, protection, and peace of mind to one of society’s most vulnerable groups and their caregivers as well as to public safety agencies that are responding to individuals with cognitive disorders.
In fact, Project Lifesaver was the first organization to pioneer the application of tracking technology to address the elopement issue among individuals prone to wandering. And ever since, it has maintained its reputation as the “Golden Standard in Excellence” throughout the special needs SAR community by carrying out nearly 3,600 rescues.
Being a 502 (C) (3) community-based, public safety, non-profit organization, Project Lifesaver doesn’t consider wandering protection and prevention as a market. “Our passion is safety, security, and protection – Our philosophy is efficiency, integrity, and innovation,” says Gene.
The Man Who Made Project Lifesaver Possible
Gene Saunders, A Passionate Social Entrepreneur
Gene is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Project Lifesaver International. Gene and everyone on his team are always motivated by the mission they have of providing protection and peace of mind to those needing it. He is focused on improving their equipment, training, and services while bringing more member agencies into the program.
“The primary mission of Project Lifesaver is to provide timely response to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children with the propensity to wander due to a cognitive condition.”