First responders institute SAFE program


OKEECHOBEE — Sheriff Noel Stephen of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office gave a presentation on autism to the Okeechobee City Council this week.

The sheriff attended the council’s April 18 meeting and explained the group autism effort between the sheriff’s office, Okeechobee County Fire Rescue and the police department.

A fellow sheriff in Santa Rosa County had an accident in his jurisdiction last year. Involved in the accident was a young man who was upset beyond the norm, said the sheriff. When deputies arrived on the scene, they could not understand why the young man was so upset. They found out later that the young man was severely autistic. Due to the traffic accident, he was extremely upset, but the deputies and fire rescue had no idea what was causing this reaction. After this situation was resolved, the sheriff and the fire rescue got together to figure out a way to work on identifying this if it happens again. “How can we help the next individual?” He said it ended up being a confrontation between law enforcement and the young man, and the young man could not help his reaction. They wanted to learn how to better handle the situation in the future.

Sheriff Robert Johnson started a program called the SAFE Program. “The SAFE Program is a means for allowing better communication between Santa Rosa County Emergency Responders and residents with special needs, or other disabilities, regarding critical information before an emergency occurs,” states his website.

“We designed this program for anyone who might not respond as expected in an emergency situation,” said Johnson. “From Alzheimer’s, autism, Down’s Syndrome, deafness and anything in between.”

Sheriff Stephen said this program is now in Okeechobee. If you have anyone in your home or family who has any type of disability, you can contact the sheriff’s office, the police department or fire rescue and register this person. The program is completely voluntary, but the hope is that if the first responders know ahead of time that there is an adult with Alzheimer’s or a child with Autism in the home, they will need to respond differently than they normally would. They can know ahead of time what types of things trigger the individual and what might calm or soothe him. Once registered, the family can get stickers to place outside the front door of their home and on the rear window of their vehicle. This is also completely voluntary.

“Hopefully this is never needed. Hopefully they will never be in this situation, but if they do, we can be there to help,” said Sheriff Stephen.

Public Relations Cpl. Jack Nash said the community can begin registering on April 24. Anyone with a physical or cognitive disability is encouraged to register.

Nash said once registered, they will be in the computer, and if officers or firefighters are ever dispatched to their home, the responders will automatically be notified about the particular need.

The sheriff said the departments are requiring extra training to help their staff recognize the needs and meet them.