Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ground Search & Rescue Ready with Project Lifesaver

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

On a warm, drizzly Saturday morning, a group of hunter-orange-clad men and women gathered at Amherst Shore Provincial Park. Only they weren’t hunters; they were searchers. 
Hunting for a lost person.
Thankfully, this was not a real call. This was a training session for Cumberland County’s two Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) teams, based in Pugwash and Springhill. Several groups were doing a pretend search for three lost children, but a couple of teams headed out on a unique search with a piece of equipment no one else had. 
All  24 GSAR groups in the province are equipped for “PLANS”: Project Lifesaver Association of Nova Scotia searches for children and adults equipped with a special transmitter bracelet. Both Pugwash and Springhill GSAR teams have members trained on the electronic search system.
Project Lifesaver employs two pieces of equipment: a transmitter which looks similar to a watch and is worn around a wrist, and a receiver which resembles a satellite antenna. Teams of two searchers work together to track the transmitter’s signal using a beep emitted by the receiver. 
“We have five clients,” said Billy O’Neill, PLANS organizer for Pugwash. “We’ve done so much practice and it’s proven itself to us. There isn’t a family who needs this who shouldn’t be using this.”
Project Lifesaver is offered only to families with a loved one who is prone to wandering: a child with autism, an adult with Alzheimer’s, or someone with a brain injury due to an accident. 
“In practice, we’ve hit it and hit it and hit it,” O’Neill said. “We never fail to find the transmitter. If we can’t find the watch-sized unit, we’re standing right beside it and can’t see it. If that was a person, we’d find them.”
Often the search is over in ten minutes. 
Chris Gooding and Ken Brownell of Springhill GSAR were one of two practice search teams at Amherst Shore Park. They were given the scenario: a missing autistic boy, last seen at playground. The team didn’t go to the campsite or the spot the child was last seen but  instead walked to the beginning of the road into the campground. Gooding turned on the receiever and did a slow 360-degree sweep. He listened for a beep, which came in faintly, and he realized there was interference from a nearby steel building. 
The team walked a little further along the road and after a second 360-degree sweep, the team got a stronger signal, giving them a direction in which to head. 
O’Neill was observing the team and pointed out, “We wouldn’t normally be walking like this. We’d be in a vehicle or on a four-wheeler because they are quicker.”
As he walked, Gooding continued to sweep the receiver slowly back and forth in front of him, following the signal. If it grew faint, he knew the transmitter was not in that direction. 
As the beeps grew louder, the range of the sweep became smaller, allowing the team to pinpoint the exact location of the small bracelet.
O’Neill had hidden the transmitter in a tree earlier in the morning, near the brook that runs through the park because not only are autistic children drawn to water, it provides a greater challenge to the searchers since water can reflect the signal.  
But 20 minutes, the transmitter was located. Brownell called it in by radio as if it was a real search: “Subject found. Healthy. Coming in.”
This is the peace of mind that Misty Martell-Ferdinand and her husband, Kevin, were seeking when they joined the program. They have three boys, aged 8, 6 and 3. Their middle child, Trent, is autistic.
“Part of our motivation was that, because of his autism, he doesn’t always respond to his name and he isn’t aware of his surroundings or any dangers,” explained Martell, a French teacher at the Pugwash high school.
She said it wasn’t a big deal when Trent was at home but they worried about what could happen when he went to school and on outings.
“He’s never bolted or been a runner so our biggest concern is that he doesn’t always respond. It’s one thing in the house but if he’s lost in the woods... He gets disoriented very fast. He wouldn’t know to go back or to shout or to ask someone for help. He might not even realize he’s lost. He would trust that we know where he is.”
Like every client of PLANS, the Ferdinands pay a one-time sign-up fee then a monthly fee of $25. Every day, Trent’s older brother Payson checks the transmitter’s battery and marks it on a log. Once a month, a PGSAR volunteer changes the battery. 
“The worst possible scenario is your kid missing,” Martell said. “[Project Lifesaver] gives you that peace of mind that if he is gone, we have someone to call.”

Ken Brownell & Chris Gooding use the receiver to locate the
transmitter hidden in a tree.
Payson Ferdinand checks the battery in the transmitter his younger
brother, Trent, wears. The boys' mother, Misty, looks on.

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