Project S.A.F.E.R helps Opelika Police better respond to people with special needs

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OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – The Opelika Police Department is taking significant steps to better respond to individuals with special needs during emergencies by launching Project S.A.F.E.R. The program is a voluntary special needs registry families can use to help first responders better care for a person with cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities. The registry is for both children and adults and allows caregivers and first responders to unite and assist during emergency response calls.

Jamie Bonner is an Opelika 911 dispatcher who is helping implement Project S.A.F.E.R. Bonner knows the volunteer registry is designed to help families just like hers. Bonner’s son is Autistic.

“It means a lot to me to be a dispatcher and know they are taking steps to help address mental health and disabilities, especially for our children,” said Bonner.

Project S.A.F.E.R. stands for Special Assistance for Emergency Response. The voluntary program is available to all citizens who live, work and attend school in Opelika. Knowing an individual’s specific needs can afford officers and first responders the opportunity to quickly and effectively respond during critical incidents. Information on registrants is kept strictly confidential and will only be utilized during times of emergency.

“If they are scared of loud noises and they are going to run from that if we know that ahead of time, we can go in not yelling or being loud. If there is an aversion to bright lights, we won’t use our police lights, things like that,” said Opelika Police Chief Shane Healey.

Individuals can enroll by visiting the Opelika Police Department’s website: opelikapd.org. The registry should be up later this week and asks individuals to provide a legal name, address, date of birth, and emergency contact information. In addition, registrants can elect to provide additional details on unique needs and upload a recent photo. Information about triggers, medications, and communication techniques can be highly beneficial in helping first responders interact with individuals who need a specialized approach.

“This helps out a lot with first responders understanding how to approach my son. If he were to run away or if something happened to me and he calls 911, they know how to approach him and how to work with him,” said Bonner.

Opelika police recognize emergency calls, especially those involving special needs, are not one size fits all.

“It’s going to be individual, based on the needs that make your family special. Knowing what your family needs gives us a way to help customize our service so we can provide the best service for you,” said Chief Healey.

After they are enrolled, registrants will receive two window decals displayed at the front entrance of their residence and their vehicle. The decal will alert first responders someone has a degree of special need and should respond accordingly. The use of the decal is voluntary.

The next phase of Project SAFER will involve sensory bags in all Opelika patrol vehicles. The sensory bags contain headphones and fidget toys officers can share to help lessen sensory overload and engage with sensory needs individuals. Opelika police hope to have these bags in all vehicles by the end of the year.

“There are a lot of things coming that fall under the umbrella of Project SAFER. The first part, which is the most important part, is going to be getting that information so we can enter it into our database so we can let paramedics and police officers know before they go to these calls, so they can provide the best service,” said Chief Healey.

This week, Project S.A.F.E.R s being rolled out ahead of the Glow for Epilepsy event at the Opelika Courthouse Square on Sunday, November 7. The Opelika Police Department will be there, promoting the Project Safer registry. Tuesday, November 2, Opelika City Council will present a proclamation for Epilepsy Awareness Month.

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