Project Lifesaver

Beaver Dam police and fire departments are working to become part of the nationwide Project Lifesaver program. The program helps monitor those who wander, and is especially helpful for those who suffer from autism, dementia or other challenges. From left are officer Eric Smedema, parent Kristi Hartzheim and police Lt. Brandon Stommel.

KEN THOMAS/Daily Citizen

Winter headlines are full of their stories, and the tragedies that befall them.

They are the people who have a tendency to wander, putting them at risk of being found dead from exposure or some other tragic circumstance.

Project Lifesaver can help prevent those tragedies by monitoring those people, and giving law enforcement officers and firefighters the tools to prevent deaths and injuries of friends, relatives and family members.

The idea is being promoted by Kristi Hartzheim, a Beaver Dam Citizens Police Academy graduate and mother of an autistic child, Beaver Dam police officer Erik Smedema and Beaver Dam police Lt. Brandon Stommel.

Crystal Boeck is retired from a law enforcement career in Florida, and is helping raise funds to meet the financial needs of the local program.

“I was told that Kristi was pursuing this program and I’m here to help,” Boeck said.

Stommel said the Beaver Dam program is the same one being used by the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department. Local leaders had the option of becoming an associated member of the sheriff’s program, but since that came with certain restrictions, opted to launch their own initiative.

“They came and did a little presentation for us, and some autism training, and discussed working with them in the future,” Stommel said. “We’re going to have guys who really want to be involved and to train others in the future. So instead of having our hands tied, we decided we wanted to go out on our own.”

Member departments are required to share their expertise, so collaboration with other Project Lifesavers is guaranteed.

The cost for training and equipment is between $5,000 and $10,000 (including a reserve for equipment updates and other expenses). People who wander must wear a monitor, which searchers can locate using a small antenna. The monitor can be located up to a half-mile in any direction. Officers on the move can scour large tracts of land given that ability. Each individual’s monitoring unit has a unique frequency, so not only local residents can be found using the system, those from other locations can share the monitor frequencies. Clients from other states can also be found if they wander off while traveling or being lost miles away from home.

Officers are in a unique position of knowing and recommending those who might benefit from having a monitor.

“A lot of the people we help now suffer from dementia — a husband or a wife who wanders off,” Smedema said. “This will give them great peace of mind that we can easily locate them.

“When we make contact with people out in the community who are eligible for the program, we can sign them up right away. We don’t have to refer them. We know who needs the program because we’re out there responding to the calls. We save time doing it ourselves instead of referring them to an agency, which would then refer them back to us.”

“There are rules, so not just everybody can get into the program,” Stommel said. “But if they qualify, this is a good way to get the help they need in any emergency.”

The process is simple. A caregiver calls 911, and dispatch alerts the nearest Project Lifesaver agency. That agency tracks the missing individual(s), who are introduced to officers through the sign-up process.

“I give my son’s frequency number and his last location and Beaver Dam and Dodge County come out and track him,” Hartzheim said.

Having a more local connection helps as well.

“Beaver Dam officers will have had previous contact with my son,” Hartzheim said. “Police come every three months and change the batteries, so there is personal contact. They ask how he is, what’s going on. We have shared information about where my son likes to go, and they know he wants to be a fireman, so there is less fear on his part. Beaver Dam will also have all the equipment here, so that’s a plus as well.”

The devices are about the size of a watch and are designed to be worn on the wrist. They are not easily removed unless cut off with a scissors.

There is no guess how many people will need the service, but numbers are not the top priority.

“If I recall, the sheriff’s office was called out five times since they started this program and four of those times the people were located before officers even got there,” Stommel said. “Having this program is especially important this time of year when the temperatures are so low. It may not be a huge number of people involved, but if there are one or two, it will be worth it.”

“It gives peace of mind to a parent,” Smedema said. “Knowing that this will be here when they need it is a real comfort to them.”

“It makes us all feel safer,” Hartzheim said. “It will make a world of difference to me and my family.”

A nominal fee is charged for the service, but no one who needs it will be denied the service.

“We’ll find a way for them to get the help they need,” Smedema said.

Donations are welcome and will be held in a separate account. Funds may be contributed at the police department, with a link to a GoFundMe page on the department’s Facebook page, or at BMO Harris Bank. United Way will be holding a fundraiser, with details to be announced at a later date.