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Morning calls help to keep seniors safe

| Sunday, Jan. 14, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Paramedics responding to Harry Pinckney's apartment one cold late-December morning found the elderly Hill District man sprawled across the floor, unable to get up.

After a check-up, Pinckney, 79, was back on his feet.

Just the day before in Dormont, authorities found the body of Anne Zabo, 72, in her frigid living room. Investigators said Zabo succumbed to the cold, fell and bumped her head, then froze to death.

The difference may have been a phone call.

At 8:30 every morning, Pinckney gets a call from a computerized telephone reassurance program called 'Are You OK?' operated by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

'(Pinckney) could have laid there for days if it wasn't for the program checking up on him,' said Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen J. Zappala Jr.

'Are You OK?' provides a scheduled phone call to senior citizens and disabled people who live alone. By simply answering the phone, seniors acknowledge they are OK. If they don't pick up and no one on a three-person contact list is available to go to the home, a dispatcher calls 911, sending emergency personnel to the scene.

When Pinckney couldn't be reached for 30 minutes on the morning of Dec. 29, Lynn Ricciardi, community outreach advocate for Zappala's office who runs the program, made the 911 call. It was the first such emergency call made by the program.

'I've got to use a wheelchair, and without that I just can't walk,' said Pinckney, who suffers from several medical conditions, including one that impairs his balance.

A Minnesota-based company developed the program in 1987, and it has been used by municipalities nationwide, including Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre. Zappala initiated the program locally two years ago, after four county senior citizens froze to death at home.

'They went unnoticed for like a week,' Ricciardi said. 'If they maybe had been on this program, they would only have laid there for a few hours.'

With Zabo's death, this winter's freezing deaths among the elderly also stand at four.

Zappala got the program running last July, paying for it through money seized from drug dealers and other criminals.

While he's pleased so far, he would like to involve municipalities and groups such as the county Area Agency on Aging and religious and charitable organizations that also check up on the elderly.

'We don't have nearly the number of persons signed up that I would like, but we're trying,' Zappala said.

The District Attorney's office calls about 50 senior citizens every morning, Ricciardi said. While all elderly county residents are eligible, Zappala said, most participants live in Penn Hills and Bethel Park, partly because Adelphi Cable broadcasts public service announcements about the program in those areas.

Information has been sent to senior centers throughout the county, and a lot of local police departments know about the program, Ricciardi said.

Allegheny County is home to the second highest percentage population of senior citizens in the nation, with an even higher concentration within Pittsburgh.

Zappala and City Councilman Gene Ricciardi want to get Pittsburgh its own 'Are You OK?' program.

Ricciardi, Lynn's husband, was pushing for such a program in the city at the time Zappala was looking at it.

Gene Ricciardi said officials have yet to decide whether the program would be better run by the city or by nonprofit agencies already doing similar work.

The idea hasn't made much progress mainly because City Council hasn't pledged funding, said Duane Ashley, director of the city's parks and recreation department.

Spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said Mayor Tom Murphy is not yet convinced the city needs its own program, but is studying the issue.

'We're certainly going to look at the county and examine their success,' Kwiecinski said.

Zappala has offered to donate software and computer equipment at an estimated cost of more than $6,000, Gene Ricciardi said.

'There's no cost to the city in terms of overhead,' the councilman said.

'The acquisition of the software is easy,' Zappala said.

'Not so simple is putting a number on all the residents who should take advantage of the program, partly because it's hard for many senior citizens to admit they need help.'

Gregor McGavin can be reached at gmcgavin@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7844.

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