An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


LEMA acquiring system for locating dementia patients, others at risk of wandering off

Brett Fassnacht, LEMA training and exercise coordinator, and Kelly Osborne, a Project Lifesaver national instructor, display the system’s locator technology and transponder on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The Lancaster Emergency Management Agency is acquiring some gear to make it easier to help families and care homes locate loved ones who wander off.

Project Lifesaver is a search system designed for people with dementia, autism, or other conditions that might cause them to leave the custody of caregivers and become lost. It equips them with a transponder that emits a unique radio frequency ID; if they wander, local police or emergency agencies can then find them quickly using a handheld receiver.

Last week, the county commissioners approved a one-year contract with Project Lifesaver on LEMA’s behalf. The $4,500 one-time expense covers four receiver units, along with accessories like headphones and power adaptors, plus training and certification for up to seven staff members. Certification is good for two years, LEMA Director Brian Pasquale said.

LEMA training and exercise coordinator Brett Fassnacht is already certified. The agency expects to obtain its Project Lifesaver equipment and finish training by the end of March, making it fully operational and ready by April 1.

Pilot Club of Lancaster, a volunteer service organization, launched Project Lifesaver locally in 2012.

(Source: Pilot Club of Lancaster)

Participating agencies receive training that certify them to use Project Lifesaver’s system. Pennsylvania State Police Troop J is a full member as are 10 municipal police departments; another 10 are associate members, Pilot Club of Lancaster says. Adding LEMA to their number will further bolster local response capability, officials said.

On average, it takes nine hours to find someone who has wandered off, and the manpower cost is considerable, Fassnacht said. Project Lifesaver clients are typically located in about 30 minutes, a “huge difference,” he said.

About 70 clients are signed up to be found if needed, said Kelly Osborne, a club member and national Project Lifesaver instructor.

Families pay a one-time fee to enroll a loved one. It covers the cost of the transponder and batteries, which have to be changed every two months.

The cost is $375, but there are provisions in case of financial hardship, Osborne said.

The radio frequency ID technology is more reliable than alternatives such as GPS, she said: It’s less susceptible to issues such as weather and terrain and doesn’t cut out if, for example, an individual wanders into a tunnel. Its range is around 1 to 3 miles, depending on terrain and how built-up and area is.

Project Lifesaver is hoping to release an option this year allowing the locator antenna to be flown by drone.

So far, there have been only a handful of local rescues using the system, but Osborne expects more as use expands. With Lancaster County’s elderly population expanding — it is the area’s fastest growing demographic — potential beneficiaries number in the thousands.

Osborne said her organization is actively marketing to potential users through health organizations, senior living centers and the Office of Aging.