Twice in the past two months, Project Lifesaver has helped track down a mentally ill area resident who is prone to wandering off in the forest.
The man responsible for implementing Project Lifesaver in Rim country, Gila County Sheriff's Sgt. Terry Hudgens, was honored Thursday by Sheriff John Armer and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR).
Hudgens and TRSAR Commander Dave Pirtle coordinate search and rescue missions in northern Gila County. Through Project Lifesaver they've located several Alzheimer's patients who have wandered off.
Project Lifesaver participants are disoriented by illness or head trauma, and wear a bracelet that emits signals from transmitters embedded in the device.
"Individuals with Alzheimer's, dementia, autism and mental disorders are the ones who are most difficult to search for and have been the source of unsuccessful searches," Pirtle said. "Sgt. Hudgens has found a program that, when implemented, can change the outcome of these searches."
Before Project Lifesaver, rescue workers were oftentimes unable to find missing patients.
"In years past, we have lost two Alzheimer's patients who had wandered off," Hudgens said. "One was in a wilderness area down south of Young and we spent a week and a half using 250 people and we never found even a body.
"The other one wandered off on Doll Baby Ranch Road and we searched for five days for him. When we got called, he had been gone three days and it was the summer, so we knew we were probably looking for a body. Five months later, some hikers came across the body near the East Verde River. I just didn't want that to happen anymore."
Hudgens researched tracking systems and found Project Lifesaver.
"This particular radio directional finding system seemed to be the best for our terrain," Hudgens said. "It was expensive and my goal was to get $10,000 to get it started."
Hudgens, TRSAR and the Mogollon Health Alliance together raised $10,000 to outfit the estimated 100 individuals who will benefit from Project Lifesaver in the Rim country.
Pirtle said other private donors chipped in to bring the program to fruition.
"The compassion and generosity of many individuals and businesses have made this project possible," Pirtle said. "The fund-raising efforts of Judy Baker of Mogollon Health Alliance and Don Peters of TRSAR directly resulted in the rapid implementation of the program."
Hudgens has been with the Gila County Sheriff's Office for 19 years and before that spent 21 years with the Phoenix Police Department.
Financial donations to Project Lifesaver can be mailed to Tonto Rim Search and Rescue at P.O. Box 357, Strawberry, AZ 85544 or the Mogollon Health Alliance at 308 E. Aero Drive, Payson, AZ 85541. Please specify the donation is for Project Lifesaver.