Project Lifesaver continues to grow

PARKERSBURG – Project Lifesaver continues to expand.

Sue Patalano, who serves as administrator for Wood County Project Lifesaver, also serves as state coordinator for the program. There are 38 West Virginia counties on the program. Wood County was the first in the state to adopt the project.

The nonprofit Project Lifesaver assists families and caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s, Autism, Down syndrome, stroke, traumatic brain injury and other cognitive disabilities who are prone to wander. Through a radio transmitter attached as a bracelet on the client and with the use of tracking equipment, trained law enforcement Project Lifesaver search and rescue teams can track individuals on the ground, from the air, underwater or even underground.

Patalano’s office was temporarily relocated from the old magistrate court building, which was razed, to a second floor room in the courthouse. After Sheriff Ken Merritt took office in January, Patalano was invited to set up an office within the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, which is the sponsor of the program, and she now has an office in the justice center.

The program continues to grow with several trainings set for this spring.

“As of mid-March the program will be in Hardy County. I’m taking Deputy Brian Swiger, the deputy trained to take over the program when I retire, to assist with training. Sheriff Merritt has been 100 percent in support of the program. In April we will be training in Mineral County and in May in Morgan County,” Patalano said.

In addition the program is working with Preston and possibly Hampshire County.

“The sheriff is from that area and would like to see the program extended there,” Patalano said.

Patalano has been with the program since its inception in 2005. The ultimate goal is have the program all 55 counties.

“We do need funding, we have about tapped out our resources,” Patalano said. The program operates on contributions from groups, individuals and grant funding. Patalano said she plans to retire in August.

“I’ve tried to streamline the program to make it as simple as possible so whoever takes over doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with administrative duties. We don’t want to take law enforcement officers off the road to do desk work,” she said.

Donations to the program are tax-exempt because the organization falls under the Wood County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, a 501-c organization.

The annual cost to provide maintenance for the equipment for one client is $120; the cost to purchase, and provide supplies for one year for a transmitter is $300.

To date, West Virginia has had 40 successful search and rescue operations through Project Lifesaver; of that number ten were in Wood County.

“Every time we were under 30 minutes with the rescue, one was under seven minutes,” Patalano said.

Currently there are 40 clients on the local Project Lifesaver Program, the program can take up to 55.

“The individual applying to put a client on the program has to be their legal guardian. The client must have a cognitive disease that makes them capable of wandering, that could be Alzheimer’s Autism, Down Syndrome, a stroke, traumatic brain injury,” Patalano said.

Firefighters at Parkersburg Fire Department Station 1 volunteer their time to assist with changing the batteries for the clients.

“I could not do the program without their help,” Patalano said. She also relies on volunteers provided through the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program.

“The RSVP volunteers go into the homes, they are sworn in as reserve deputies,” Patalano said.

“This program is something I have always felt strongly about supporting, and we were willing to become the state coordinator,” Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt said, noting if the program had been in place in other parts of the state, search times would have been greatly reduced, and lives that were lost might have been saved.

According to the National Project Lifesaver, most who wander are found within a few miles from home, and search times have been reduced from hours and days to minutes. Recovery times for Project Lifesaver clients average 30 minutes, 95 percent less time than standard operations.

“But they do need money to carry it out. We will do what we can at the department to help,” Merritt said.

Anyone interested in having Patalano speak to groups, organizations, churches, to get information about signing up someone to participate in the program, to volunteer to help, donate or get information for a fund-aiser for the organization, call Patalano at 304-424-1769.