3 Mon Valley police departments participate in Project Lifesaver
As the Allegheny County District Attorney's office explores avenues of keeping special needs individuals safe, police in McKeesport, Munhall and Elizabeth will serve as regional support for the Mon Valley.
They are among 10 departments that will use Project Lifesaver receivers, which detect radio signals from bracelets worn by people with cognitive disorders, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced during a Wednesday press conference.
“With this type of technology, we're much more optimistic we'll find someone more quickly,” Zappala said.
Project Lifesaver's mission is to use state-of-the-art technology to assist those who care for individuals with autism, Down syndrome, Alzheimer's and any other cognitive condition that can cause wandering.
Over the past two years, other funding sources have brought receivers and training to Munhall and Elizabeth police departments. The program will make its way to McKeesport in coming weeks with the District Attorney's office footing the bill for receivers and at least 20 bracelets for families across the county. Each bracelet costs approximately $300, and Zappala is hopeful his office will receive money to purchase more.
Officials estimate more than 4,000 people with autism spectrum disorders live in the county. Seniors with Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive problems also qualify to receive Project Lifesaver bracelets.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan said the office reached out to local police who have a vested interest in increasing awareness of autism and other cognitive conditions, whether through experiences in their own families or through previous training.
Munhall police worked with Project Lifesaver trainer Cathy Ash in September, and after just a few days, officer James Williams learned the devices are as good as advertised.
“It does everything they said it would do,” Williams said. “We're hoping to get this off the ground right away.”
Transmitters can be traced from as far as one to three miles away and up to seven feet underwater, Ash said. The average search usually takes 30 minutes or less to find the person wearing the transmitter.
Elizabeth officials introduced the equipment to borough residents in February and explained the Lifesaver Angels program that provides individual funding ranging from $100 to $10,000.
Working alongside Officer-in-Charge John Snelson, officer Tim Butler explained the tracking procedure, saying, “We start with the last place a person was seen.”
McKeesport police Chief Bryan J. Washowich said city detective Joe Osinski and officer Jeremy Zuber will be trained on Project Lifesaver equipment and search techniques.
“It's a much-needed investigatory tool that will, without question, save a life in the future,” Washowich said. “Any technological tool that law enforcement can add to ensuring health and safety is one more resource to fulfill our oath of service to the public.”
With a relatively small number of bracelets available through the county's current grant opportunity, the District Attorney's office is providing information packets and premise alert request forms that families can use to make authorities aware of their needs immediately.
Families can retrieve informational packets, signup sheets and take-home tools that will notify public safety officials that, if they are dispatched to a home, they may encounter individuals with physical challenges, mental health issues or intellectual disabilities.
Families will receive forms on which they are asked to list a description of their loved one with details that could aid in a rescue, along with stickers to place on their vehicle windows and front doors.
A brief training video will teach officers how to handle situations involving encounters with special needs individuals.
“We are trying to educate first responders,” Swan said. “If a paramedic, a firefighter or a police officer has this training, a potentially life-threatening situation can be avoided.”
Osinski confirmed that it's important for first responders to know the needs of the people they are helping.
“The premise alert packets expand on the roll call video,” Osinski said. “The officers know ahead of time while responding to an incident if they are going to be encountering someone with special needs. They have the training to recognize it, and now they know when to apply it.”
Families may request information packets and premise alert request forms from McKeesport, Munhall and Elizabeth police. They can apply for Project Lifesaver bracelets by contacting Swan at 412-350-4401 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writers Margaret Harding, Patrick Cloonan and Tim Karan contributed to this story. Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or email@example.com.