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HILLSVILLE — A trainer with Project Lifesaver came to the Twin Counties to help Carroll and Grayson searchers stay sharp. By the end of the session, he had no concerns on that front.
The program keeps tabs electronically on those with conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism that make them prone to wandering away from home.
Paul Ballance, who serves with the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office, noted that Project Lifesaver has carried out 2,535 searches since its inception in 1999-2000 — every one of those searches with positive results.
After going over information with members of the Carroll and Grayson sheriffs’ offices and a preliminary exam of finding three strategically hidden electronic transmitters in 15 minutes, Ballance tried to personally elude his trainees the next day.
He found that a challenge.
Project Lifesaver provides dedicated radio frequency transmitters with a range of about three-quarters of a mile to those with diminished mental capacity.
This device greatly improves the ability of searchers to find the person in a timely fashion. “It’s for anybody who will wander off and not be able to find their way home.”
Ballance tried to make it as tricky as he could for the searchers, by taking the battery out of the transmitter and moving from the last known location on Airport Road to the outskirts of Hillsville on Webb Haven Road and then re-engaging the device.
He actually passed, going the other way, the searchers on the four-lane while the transmitter was off.
The training tells searchers to go to the last place the client was seen.
In one test, Ballance gave searchers the address of the Hillsville Family Shoe Store, before parking his black rental Kia in Food Lion’s lot and ducking into Burger King diagonally across the U.S. 52-58 intersection.
(Ballance took time to explain his purpose to the employees there, saying that authorities would come in looking for him, waving “sticks” around, meaning the receivers that resemble small TV antennas. The workers there were understanding, he said.)
One search team went into the shoe store, while a second got a transmitter signal at Pine and Sutherland streets.
The teams triangulated in on the device and Ballance within about 15 minutes. That compares well to the average search taking 30 minutes.
“These guys are doing so good, I’m floored by it,” Ballance said.
Set up a perimeter and work out from the last place seen, the trainer told the trainees. Keep in mind a normal person can walk as many as four miles in an hour.
Another search took place in the subdivisions to the north of Carroll County High School.
“Your client is one of the Marching Cavaliers and he was seen marching out of the school 25 minutes ago, direction unknown,” Ballance told searchers over the radio, giving the trainees their objective.
The missing person walked up a hill into a wooded buffer zone between the subdivision streets and left the transmitter on an old stump there.
Searchers fanned out by 12:28 p.m., with one team going to Wilkinson and Virginia streets, but they got nothing on their handheld antennas.
Another said over the radio they were going to the Cavalier Xpress.
The hills and the leaf canopy and neighboring buildings can obscure the radio signal, but by 12:44 p.m. the searchers closed in.
One team walked up a private drive while another approached by a neighboring street.
They circled the area and found the transmitter on the stump by 12:48 p.m.
“When you got to the school, did you get a signal?” Ballance asked.
No, they answered.
Not only do you have to find the ping, but you have to pay attention to where it gets stronger as well as where it fades out, Carroll Deputy David Walls observed.
Instead of the 19 or so minutes with the Project Lifesaver devices, Grayson Lt. T.B. Sawyers expects a search without them would take much more time and resources.
“Now, how long would it have taken without that?” he asked.
“You can’t do a grid search with seven people,” added Carroll Deputy Buck Cox, referring to the number of people in the training.
You’d have to have 100 people to do a grid search effectively, Sawyers agreed.
A lot of families take care of their own around here, so the devices are really important, said Todd Perkins, an investigator with the Grayson Sheriff’s Office, during the training.
That chirp given off by the equipment is the “greatest sound in the world” to searchers looking for an 8-year-old autistic child or an 80-year-old person with Alzheimers or dementia, Ballance said. “Then, you take them home to their family.”