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Wheeling moms upset over unused tracking gear

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey Pat Elliott holds her son, Kouper, 11, at their Bethlehem home Monday. Kouper, who has severe autism and is nonverbal, had a Project Lifesaver tracking bracelet while living in Marshall County, but is still waiting to receive one in Ohio County because the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department has not implemented it despite having the equipment for eight years.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey
Pat Elliott holds her son, Kouper, 11, at their Bethlehem home Monday. Kouper, who has severe autism and is nonverbal, had a Project Lifesaver tracking bracelet while living in Marshall County, but is still waiting to receive one in Ohio County because the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department has not implemented it despite having the equipment for eight years.

WHEELING, W.Va. — In the U.S. and Canada, more than 3,000 lives have been saved through Project Lifesaver. But none of those have been in Ohio County.

Ohio County has yet to utilize the equipment, even though it’s been sitting in the county’s sheriff department for eight years.

The situation is unacceptable to Wheeling mothers Pat Elliott and Crystal Seladoki, whose sons are diagnosed with severe autism. Local social service agencies who have been trying to work with the sheriff’s department on implementation also are frustrated. All are hopeful that the proven tracking program gets up and running in Ohio County before a tragedy occurs.


Law enforcement, fire departments and search-and-rescue units in all the other counties throughout the Ohio Valley – from Hancock down to Tyler counties in West Virginia and Monroe, Belmont, Harrison and Jefferson in Ohio – use Project Lifesaver transmitter bracelets and receivers to find missing children with autism or Down syndrome and adults with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and other dementia-related illnesses.

Some people with these disorders tend to wander, often toward water and away from people.

“It’s one of those great projects that saves lives,” said Noel Clarke, Moundsville Fire Department chief who helps oversee Marshall County Project Lifesaver and has taken part in search-and-rescues since the program began there in 2010.

“We have had people wander off and be found within 15 minutes. … It gives us the ability to have a search-and-rescue instead of a recovery. It’s so uplifting to find people instead of recovering (them).”

“We have never lost anyone,” added Marshall County Emergency Management Deputy Director Mike Mucheck, who runs the program with Clarke. “In fact, there has never been an unsuccessful search in Project Lifesaver nationwide.”

The nonprofit company has recorded 3,099 searches on its website, with an average response time of 30 minutes. Eighty-five searches have taken place in West Virginia using Project Lifesaver equipment, according to state director Sue Patalano with the Wood County Sheriff’s Department.

Delay After Delay

The Ohio County Sheriff’s Department first received its equipment in 2008 through a John and Liz Raese Foundation grant, Patalano said. The Ohio County Commission also provided $10,000 for program costs at that time, and Patalano and another trainer from Wood County trained several deputies. The department never assigned transmitter bracelets to anyone, however.

In 2011 and 2012, transmitters were purchased for four Ohio County residents with autism and Alzheimer’s, according to information provided by Claudia Raymer, Ohio County Family Resource Network executive director. Two of those were children with autism who received grants through Northwood Health Systems.

When contacted about securing the bracelets in 2012, Ohio County Chief Deputy Drage Flick said the county’s receiver equipment was broken and needed to be replaced. The department subsequently bought two new receivers from Project Lifesaver in June 2012 for about $2,000. Patalano returned to train new officers and re-certify those already trained.

But the four people waiting for the bands never received them.

Seladoki’s 15-year-old son, Christian, is one of them. He is a wander risk – one time he turned up at a local elementary school after disappearing from his back yard when Seladoki’s back was turned for just a minute. She has left messages about Christian’s paid-for band at the sheriff’s department several times over the last three years, including three times since October. Her calls have not been returned.

“I just feel like it’s going to take some kind of major tragedy, and it’s so sad,” Seladoki said.

Elliott, whose 11-year-old son, Kouper, was the first resident banded in Marshall County, now lives in Ohio County. She called Flick in October after her son wandered off during a Special Olympics event she was running. She had asked his 15-year-old brother to keep track of him.

Elliott panicked but quickly found Kouper outside heading toward the street. After that, she was desperate to get him back in the Project Lifesaver program.

“If he wandered off alone, he wouldn’t even make it past the street. I mean, if he’s gone, he’s gone,” Elliott said.

In October, Elliot said Flick told her to call back after Thanksgiving. When she did, he said he would call her when it was ready to go, but she hasn’t heard from him.

Flick said last week the delays have been caused by the equipment problems and repeated required trainings in the past, not to mention the time it takes to administer the program.

“There is about 400 things going on and things we have to get done, and that one just keeps getting pushed off,” Flick said. He said officers need to be retrained again, and an advisory board needs to be formed. Flick said Elliott is the first person on his list to call when the training is completed.

“I hope to have it up and running in the next couple months,” he said.

The county’s delays in getting the program operational could present a liability issue, Patalano said, as the sheriff’s department could be sued if residents eligible for the program wandered off and died before they were found.

“If they have that equipment, and I want to put my loved one on and if they don’t follow through, they could be liable,” Patalano said.

How It Works

Project Lifesaver was founded by a now retired Virginia law enforcement officer, Gene Saunders, in 1999. Patalano brought it to West Virginia after learning about it from Cathy Ash with the Area Agency on Aging Region 8 near Marietta. Both women have been instrumental in introducing it throughout their home states, and both are state and national trainers.

A resident with autism, Alzheimer’s, dementia or any other cognitive illness who is prone to wander can enroll and is provided with a transmitter about the size of a man’s watch, attached to the wrist or ankle with a plastic or nylon band. Each transmitter has a radio frequency that is recorded.

When an enrolled person goes missing and a quick search of the house and yard yields nothing, the caregiver is instructed to call 911.

The Project Lifesaver responders are notified, the frequency assigned to that bracelet is entered into their portable receivers, and the caregiver provides the location the person was last seen and what he or she was wearing.

Each agency has at least two receivers but can purchase more. Tyler County has four. Marshall County has seven. For each receiver, there also is an antennae to put on their cars so the search can begin as they head to the last known location.

In Jefferson County, Sheriff Fred Abdalla said last week that if 91-year-old John Mathes, known as “the Pepsi Man,” had been enrolled in Project Lifesaver when he disappeared in his car in November, “we’d have been able to locate him sooner.” Mathes’ body was found on a remote farm road concealed by brush, unable to be spotted even by air. The receivers have a radius of 5-7 miles from the air, Patalano said. On the ground, it’s about 1 mile.

The initial equipment costs about $4,000, Patalano said. It is purchased usually through grant funding, government agencies, senior services, federal grants and/or private donations. The initial purchase of a transmitter and six months’ worth of batteries and bands for a client costs about $300, but most counties are able to cover that cost through commission funding, grants or donations. After that, enrollees are asked to pay $10 a month for a battery and band, but that fee also often is covered.

Nick of Time

Mark King is a captain with the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, the first county in West Virginia to implement Project Lifesaver in 2005 (48 of the 55 counties now have it, Patalano said). He vividly remembers a nick-of-time rescue for an 8-year-old boy with autism.

The boy left his home and headed to a nearby pond. King had picked up his signal and was tracking toward the pond, but a neighbor arrived there first, to find the boy submerged up to his neck, his shirt sleeve caught on a nail on the dock. That nail was the only thing keeping him from going under.

Another girl in the program, who also is 8, King said, is “just obsessed with swimming pools.” He tracked her in the middle of the night to a neighbor’s pool and, as he approached, she was looking over her shoulder at him, her hand on the gate latch.

“The equipment worked very well. It took me right to her,” King said.

“Our biggest fear,” King said, “is looking for someone who would need Project Lifesaver and didn’t have it.”

“You can’t have this equipment and not use it,” Clarke said.

Ann Koegler, Altenheim Resource Center coordinator in Wheeling, said there are other types of programs for wandering dementia patients – including Silver Alert, which is similar to the Amber Alert program for missing children- but most of those programs involve identification bracelets or necklaces.

“A large part of our county is rural, which increases the problem when we have someone go missing. They can wear bracelets and necklaces and other forms of ID, but if there is no one to see that ID, they will not be found,” Koegler said.

Next Steps

Raymer, with the Ohio County Family Resource Network, has been working with Flick since March to ensure Project Lifesaver gets up and running but also has been frustrated by the multiple delays.

“We want to help implement this program before a tragedy occurs,” Raymer said.

Last April, at Raymer’s urging, Patalano reluctantly came to Ohio County for a third time to retrain Flick and another deputy, along with training Jami Robinson with the Family Resource Network for the first time.

Volunteers like Robinson and Raymer, not just law enforcement, can be trained to be responders, and once they receive the required 16 hours of training can operate most aspects of the program including the administration and the required monthly battery and band replacements, Patalano said. In Wood County, Retired Senior Volunteer Program workers do those checks, or the enrollees stop into the fire department to have them done.

Flick agreed manpower is definitely an issue.

“The biggest problem I see as law enforcement is we are designed to operate to respond to calls. … We should be functioning this unit as responders,” he said.

Clarke, the Moundsville fire chief, noted he understands law enforcement is extremely busy fighting the war on drugs and other serious crimes.

“This is not an inconvenience to emergency responders,” Clarke said. “This is what we do. We eat this up. It’s what our niche is.”

Tom Cooper, director of Tyler County Office of Emergency Management, which operates Project Lifesaver in Tyler and Wetzel counties, agreed. His EMA was the first non-law enforcement agency in West Virginia to run the program.

“You have to have people interested and willing to run it,” Cooper said. “You can’t force people to do this program. … Not to be critical of law enforcement; they just don’t have the time.”

Raymer said she and Robinson have offered to complete any administrative work to operate the program and are eager to help the sheriff’s department remove any more obstacles. The FRN also has a disabilities committee made up of representatives from Northwood, Harmony House, Legal Aid, Easter Seals, West Virginia Birth to Three and the Upper Ohio Valley Sexual Assault Help Center, all of whom would be willing to assist. Koegler and Elliot also want to be on board.

In a phone interview Thursday, Patalano offered to return again if Flick needs training assistance. At 71, she is semi-retired and doesn’t travel in the winter, so it would not be until spring. Her services are free, but she requires her expenses to be paid. She said, however, Flick has received the instructor’s training and therefore is trained to train others.

“The key the success of the program is a dedicated staff person within whatever agency is doing it,” said Ash, with Ohio Area Agency on Aging Region 8.

Added Clarke: “If you couldn’t implement it, it needs to be passed off to an agency who can get it off the ground.”

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