Skip to main content

Pooler Magazine

The Effingham County Sheriff's Office

Project Lifesaver and R U OK

Fear often seems to have no natural boundaries, but neither does hope. Some individuals have faced the most awful fear imaginable: the uncertainty of a loved one’s safety and whereabouts. In such terrifying times, efficient and effective resources are a crucial need.

Established in April of 1999 as a “search and rescue initiative” of the Chesapeake, Virginia Sheriff’s Office, Project Lifesaver International (PLI) was conceived to help eliminate as much of that fear as possible; the organization was founded by Gene Saunders, CEO. The purpose of PLI is to “provide timely response to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children who wander due to cognitive disorders,” including “Alzheimer’s, autism, Down Syndrome, dementia and other cognitive conditions.” PLI is a 501(c)3 organization that is currently in “48 states, six Canadian provinces and Australia.” Hence, law enforcement organizations across the globe are partnering with PLI because they understand, first-hand, the necessity of the program and its tremendous benefits.

The technology behind Project Lifesaver is impressive. Personalized wristbands, or transmitters (receivers), are placed on a wrist or ankle of an at-risk individual. Each transmitter has a unique frequency number that is registered in a local PLI agency database. The transmitter “emits an individualized tracking signal” that pinpoints the individual’s last location up to a five-mile radius; search efforts begin at that location. The small wristbands are “personalized radio transmitters or GPS locators.” In the event that an enrolled client wanders off, a “caregiver is able to notify their local Project Lifesaver agency.” An emergency team is immediately dispatched to the individual’s area by tracking their signal. Due to the accuracy and overall effectiveness of the technology, most wandering individuals are located within about 30 minutes. This recovery time is absolutely phenomenal and takes “95% less time” than non-PLI search and recovery efforts.

Obviously, as time is truly dire in such situations, every moment counts. In addition, massive amounts of resources are saved, including man hours, equipment and funds. The service is currently only $350 to begin and $200 annually thereafter (to cover supplies), which is well worth the benefit.

Under the leadership of Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie, the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department began its partnership with Project Lifesaver about ten years ago. Actually, as a new Effingham resident at the time, Pauline Shaw was the local trailblazer for the initiative, as she had moved from Chatham County whose Sheriff’s Department partners with PLI. Pauline was very familiar with the program, especially since she had registered her autistic child in Chatham. Pauline promoted the PLI initiative locally, organized various fundraisers and spread knowledge of the program throughout the area.

Corporal Kathy Dillard is currently the local PLI Search Specialist and has been the local PLI Certified Coordinator for five years. Originally from Elberton, Georgia, Kathy has been with the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department since January 2004; she began her career as a jail officer. After over five years of noteworthy service, Kathy attended the Police Academy where she graduated and became a patrol officer and, later, a humane enforcement officer. Presently, Kathy’s primary professional role is that of transport officer for the department. She really enjoys her career and all of the dynamics that encompass it.

“It’s hard to get bored doing this every day; it’s always a challenge,” Kathy stated.

Kathy wholeheartedly believes in the value of PLI and has witnessed its benefits on various occasions.

She is immensely thankful for the appreciation of the local PLI members. She has been able to establish good relationships with many of them over the years, including Stephen Johnson; as an individual with both autism and Down Syndrome, Stephen has been a member since April 2013.

Kathy is proud of the support that individuals have given the program over the years; however, she understands that so much more is necessary, as PLI is funded solely by donations.

“It takes the whole community to fund this program; the community wants to help,” she said. Effingham’s Project Lifesaver program has been promoted on WTOC, Mid-Morning Live, in local newspapers and has a Facebook Page.

Local-area schools are even getting involved. Kathy is excited about incorporating school-wide donation contests in order to support the cause. The school with the most donations receives a trophy and even dress-down days for its students.

“It’s just a phenomenal fundraiser. I’m very excited about it,” she said.

Kathy has dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort over the years towards the cause. Fortunately, she has recently been privileged to receive the assistance of Officer Frances Thompson who is currently working on her professional PLI certification. Frances has been very helpful and is already quite passionate about the cause.

“We want to make sure everyone is safe. It’s another way that we as law enforcement can ensure more safety and security to the community. We’re here to do good and to keep our community uplifted. We’re another hand to help you. We’re hoping that more people will get involved so that it will be a large network. I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Frances remarked.

The Sheriff’s Department incorporated the Are You Okay (“RU OK”) Program a few years ago, as it was spearheaded by the Sheriff himself. Founded by Bruce Johnson of Northland Innovation Corporation, the program is a “call check-in service for friends and family of senior citizens” who are concerned about their elderly loved ones who live alone. There is no cost for the service, and it is in several states across the globe. Users must have RU OK Software installed on their computer. Each day at a pre-established time, the system’s computer “automatically makes a check-in call to the senior through an automated phone calling system.” If there is no answer, the computer will try 30 minutes later; if there is still no answer, it will try again after 15 additional minutes have passed. If still unsuccessful, an alert is issued on the computer screen and audibly through its speakers; a printout containing emergency information is produced. A deputy is then dispatched immediately to check on the loved one.

Additionally, the Sheriff’s Department has recently implemented a new initiative within the RU OK Program which allows parents to use the service to check on their children who might temporarily be home alone. Whether checking on kids who are at home alone over the summer break, or even during the school year, parents are able to have that much needed peace of mind.

Both Kathy and Frances see the tremendous value of the RU OK Program.

“Look at us as an extended caregiver; know that there’s someone else that can help you, and you’re not in this alone,” Frances said.

Moving forward, Kathy would like to see more awareness spread concerning the programs, and she is diligently striving to make that happen.

For more detailed information about Project Lifesaver International and the RU OK Program, contact the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department at (912) 754-3449.

Donations for Project Lifesaver are made through the Effingham County Sheriff’s Fund.