It was only two personal transmitters, which look a lot like wristwatches, but Port Allen firefighters participating in a two-day training program last week scoured for the hidden transmitters throughout the city like they were attached to missing children.
With personal radios, two tracking devices and fire vehicles at their disposal, six firefighters and their trainer Paul Ballance of the Norfolk (Va.) Sheriff’s Office, made their way from Station 1 in Port Allen to Williams & Lee Park in a matter of minutes and successfully ended their search at the 11-minute, 26-second mark.
“When you find the client, it’s a job well done,” Ballance said. Those ‘clients,’ he said, are people of all ages who are prone to wander, including children with autism and adults with Down’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The second search, which began from Williams & Lee Park to the last seen location, successfully ended on the levee top in Port Allen across from City Hall at the 16-minute mark.
It was at City Hall where Randi and Mark Stephens first advocated for the program in Port Allen, the first Project Lifesaver program in Louisiana. Project Lifesaver currently exists in 48 other states and three other countries, according to Project Lifesaver International materials.
Less then two weeks after the Stephens’ appeared at City Hall, the Port Allen fire department received approval for a $5,000 grant for the initial equipment and training for the program.
Randi said during the second day of training on Friday, March 7, “Persistence does pay off. They’ve got something amazing now…It’s peace of mind for parents like me.”
Ballance called the searches on the second day of training “the fun part” and said the trainees averaged an 11- to 12-minute response time throughout the 16-hour, or two-day, program.
Port Allen firefighters Gerald Mann, Alex Paul, Brian Roussel, Mark Travasos, Alex Thibodeaux and Brusly Fire Chief Mike Alleman participated in the training. All graduated Friday, March 7 as Basic Electronic Search Specialists and all but Alleman also graduated as Basic Instructors, meaning they may teach Project Lifesaver to others in Port Allen, Ballance said.
Alleman said the equipment would be accessible to the Brusly fire department.
It is unclear how or if the parish will be able to utilize Port Allen’s Project Lifesaver program after each fire department in the parish transitions to parish oversight, under one parish-wide fire chief, by July 1.
The Port Allen Fire Department and specifically Alex Thibodeaux will be the point of contact for those interested in obtaining a personal transmitter for a loved one.
Each transmitter has a one-time cost of $250, Thibodeaux said, and a 5-year warranty.
Ballance said the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office foots the bill for the program in Norfolk, Va. due to cost concerns.
“What we found is a lot of people can’t afford it,” he said.
Randi said Medicare, Medicaid and some insurance companies do cover the transmitters. However, she said her sister is interested in organizing a benefit to raise money for those that aren’t covered and a friend wants to set up a Facebook page for donations. Thibodeaux said the fire department is indeed interested in donations.
Ballance said each transmitter has a radio frequency attached to it whereby firefighters may track them.
He said the children don’t like wearing them the first day or so, but that, “They get used to it.”
Ballance said he has been teaching for Project Lifesaver throughout the country for the last two years and that he teaches about four to five courses per year. He said he has done well over 200 searches for Project Lifesaver.
WBR Parish Superintendent of Schools David Corona said the school system is definitely interested in being a part of Project Lifesaver, calling the program “very useful” and “appropriate.”
Supervisor of Special Education Dr. David Strauss, whom Corona said he appointed point-man for the program, also said the schools are interested and that he will look into the program further.
“We’ve worked with parents on trying to get it,” he said.
Randi said the program is already spreading to surrounding parishes. “It looks like it’s taking off finally,” she said.