To refer or select a little gadget that could save a life in an emergency is a big responsibility. Become a confident buyer or referrer by considering the 12 questions posed in this article in your selection process.
Personal alarms can give peace of mind and a sense of security to the elderly, children, solo workers or people recuperating after surgery or illness – as well as their loved ones and carers.
Especially when you consider the statistics that one in three elderly over 65 experiences a fall and this risk increases with age and one in five falls result in a serious injury requiring hospitalisation.
These Personal Alarms can also be an instant, and invaluable, form of communication in the event of an emergency. In other words, personal alarms may save lives.
Also known as life Alert alarms, when these small devices are triggered they send an emergency alert to pre-set mobile phone numbers or a 24-hour monitoring service.
The alarms come in different sizes & designs, and some models also perform functions such as communication, location tracking, and fall detection. These features have developed quickly in recent years, and are becoming fairly reliable today, although they’re still not perfect and not all work as advertised…
It is a very responsible, and definitely not an easy job referring or selecting a solution that meets the care needs of the wearer best *. This article will help or trigger you what to look for in a personal alarm. When you are having difficulty working out the differences between all the products on offer, or what are the 12 things you need to take into consideration, you might want to ask for our free advice?
On this page:
2. Ease of use
8. Data privacy
11. Fall detection
What is a personal alarm?
A personal alarm is a small device that helps you monitor and communicate with a person who may require attention in times of need.
Unlike smartphones, they're designed mainly to be a quick and simple communication tool for times of distress or danger.
They're often used by nurses, parents, carers and their patients and children. Patients and children can quickly and easily alert others if they require attention, typically if they're lost or injured.
How do personal alarms work?
A personal alarm is a small device that is worn around the neck or wrist, comes in different designs & colours, and is powered by a battery.
They include an SOS button for the wearer to press and send an immediate alert to either a call centre (if you have a subscription-based personal alarm) or a list of pre-determined contacts.
Some of the devices have built-in technology that can eg. measure sudden movements followed by no movement (detecting a possible fall).
Personal Alarm for use at-home vs. Mobile Personal Alarm for on-the-go
Personal Alarm devices normally connect to a base station at-home and work up to 400 meters around the residence. However, some devices are Mobile, and have the benefit is that they work (almost) everywhere**
Most Mobile Personal Alarms have a built-in mobile SIM card, similar to a smartphone, to provide 2-way communication, and/or location tracking functionality. Alternative options connect to the wearer’s smartphone and share its SIM, GPS, calling and SMS functionality.
The rest of this article we focus on the mobile devices only. See the Personal Emergency Alarm article for more information on at-home solutions.
The First Moments in an Emergency Are Vital
Getting help quickly in an emergency is so important. Seniors who are unable to get help run the risk of complications further down the line due to being left unattended, possibly injured, and at risk of getting cold. Any physical injuries, or emotional distress, go untreated. All this makes it more likely that they’ll have to stay in the hospital longer and can impact recovery rates.
Many personal alarms are designed to alert (SMS and/or call) a pre-selected contact like a mobile phone of a family member or friend, also called non monitored alerts. Receiving such an alert is a stressful occasion for the family or friends and creates more anxiety than peace of mind. An alternative is to connect to an emergency contact centre service and have the alerts professionally monitored. See for more detail of this subscription based service: 9. Emergency Monitoring.
What to look for in a Personal Mobile Alarm?
“Functional features like eg. Fall detection, Location tracking or Two-way communication tend to be the deciding factors in finding a personal alarm that suits someone's needs, rather than the non-functional features like eg. battery life, support, design or connectivity”
While the functions are critical in selecting the right device, our experience is that the non-functional features determine if the device will be adopted by the end-user and not abandoned after a few weeks… The non-functional features should be evaluated first to ensure that the purchase will give value for money and doesn’t end up in the drawer.
Eight Non-functional features
To figure out which is the best for you, you should be asking yourself up to 8 questions:
What is the affordability of the Product, SIM and ongoing Service?
What is the ease of use?
What support is available, both for setup & ongoing care?
What is the practical battery life, and how/frequent is the charging?
What is the Style, Size, Weight, Design, and Water Protection?
What is the right mobile network connectivity?
Is it a stand-alone solution, or a part of a broader Care Services offering?
Is the data / privacy secured?
Four Functional features
Once you have ensured that the basics are covered you check: “Does this Product have the features & services I, or my loved ones, need?”
Emergency Monitoring? If yes, what is the response time, and the quality of the response?
2-way Communication? If yes, can the wearer make a non-emergency call, and how is the speaker clarity and range?
Fall detection? If yes, what is the dependability of the detector?
Can it track its location? If yes, does it provide a solution to monitor wandering?
Let’s look at all those 12 important things you could or should consider in more detail.
The Mobile Personal alarm can have three cost components:
The Product itself (either buying or renting it)
Daily / Monthly / yearly Subscriptions
I. Product cost
Prices range from $100 up to $725 if you buy a device without the setup or recurring cost. Some providers might rent / lease the device, see section Product rental fee. You can imagine that the product functionality is not the same if it is 7x the product price.
II. Setup cost
The cost for the setup effort can vary between $40-50 for the initial pre-programming fee, $15-20 for postage and packing (excluding Personalised installation service of $50-100), and between $0 -15 transaction fees. So the total setup prices range between $50-$150.
III. Daily / Monthly / yearly Subscription cost
To use the product you might face a recurring cost, called a subscription. Subscription services could be required to receive the full gamut of features & services offered by the device, like tracking or admin portal & apps access, support or SIM card usage. Care organisations often need more additional services than family & friends as they have to look after more users simultaneously.
Paying a subscription is not necessarily a bad thing. For example you can see misleading phrases in ads like “No monitoring fees, ever…”, as if monitoring is a scam or a waste of money... but is it? Or is the lack of a monitoring option a high risk, and no fees actually means no service?
Subscriptions contain at least 1 or more of the following 5 cost elements:
1. Customer Care
The provider has a support team ready to support you. The fee is an incentive to do this very well, and losing you as a client means they lose the income. A kind of roadside assistance membership to keep your car on the road.
Support cost between 2 and 3 cents per office hour (8x5), so up $5 a month.
2. Emergency Monitoring
Emergency response performance could be the most important feature of a Life Alert solution. Emergency response performance can be experienced in response speed and the quality of the response so you should ask the question: “What is the response time, and what is the quality of the response?”. See for more detail: 9. Emergency Monitoring later in this article.
Emergency monitoring services cost between 1 and 2 cents per hour (24x7), so up $20 a month.
3. Mobile SIM card usage
The SIM card normally covers Data, SMS and Voice functionality. Prices range widely from $20 a month (dedicated post-paid SIM plan) to $35 a year (pre-paid SIM plan). The massive difference (>7x) will be explained in their Terms & Conditions and the limitations should be understood before choosing, as the devil is in the detail.
4. Software / license usage
Some solutions offer access to their portal & mobile apps as part of their subscription. Prices range between $5-$10 a month. Especially eg. actively tracking the wearer, changing Geo-fence settings, or monitoring multiple users simultaneously (eg. a care organisation) is made much easier using the software than using the SMS codes, see also 12. Location tracking.
5. Product rental fee
Only some solution providers offer financing or leasing of the device. This cost around $10-$20 a month. You have to check if the ownership of the device is transferred to you at the end of the term, or if the ownership of the device is retained after the term by the provider and you will have to return it in the end. The latter is ideal if you only need it for several months.
Please check, but most providers offer easy cancellation terms for the subscription without requiring long-term contracts.
Are there free alternatives?
If you have a smartphone, you can use a number of apps that are similar to personal alarms, and you already pay for the mobile SIM card. However, they have some limitations eg. if the wearer has an emergency situation and is mentally or physically not capable of operating the phone.
A smart alternative is to use a pendant or bracelet that connects to the smartphone, see Pendant without screen or SIM card. A great solution but the wearer a) needs to have a smartphone, b) be able to charge it, and c) willing/not forget to carry it with them.
2. Ease of use
Once purchased the device the experience of simplicity, both setup and ongoing use, determine if the wearer will adopt/use the device in the long run, and not abandon it after a few tries instead.
A good user manual is essential.
How to setup/configure – and in some cases re-configuring – each device, and how easy this is to do, for example does it come with an easy to use app or portal or is this done using SMS commands
Assess the ease of sending an SOS, recharging, using buttons, or making a call.
The shape/size, weight and design of the device and whether it's easy to grip and light enough to carry.
If and how the device needs a SIM card to be inserted, however most come with the SIM pre-installed.
A challenge for the buyer is that some products look exactly the same but its features and hence the ease use is different...
3. Setup support & Customer Care
Check the company behind the personal alarm, to determine your options, and to save yourself a headache. Our experience working with these products for many years, we know that the self serve out-of-box experience generally leaves a lot to be desired.
Always check whether the product has email and telephone support.
As mentioned before, if you pay for a monthly subscription you can imagine that the provider has an incentive to support you very well to keep you as their client, compared to paying no subscription or paying the subscription a year in advance...
Many websites are based in China and you can find some identical looking, and similarly featured, devices for around $100. The good news is that they may perform in a similar manner.
The bad news is they have:
no local support and instructions (if they exist)
may not work with local sim cards
may not be in English.
Locally-sold products will more likely have software and set-up support, which you should put a high value on.
Many devices are bought but often not used at all or very quickly abandoned. One of the biggest reasons for that is the battery; how long it lasts and (if needed) how easy it is to recharge. Future batteries will charge in seconds, last months and power over the air, but those are not available today.
The more features and functionality in the device, the shorter the Battery Life. There are two solutions to resolve the issue:
Reduce the Battery Load. Some solutions have a long lasting battery that goes for 2 years without charging. To reduce the load they have less built-in features, no screen, and “borrow” the nearby smartphone, power hungry, functionality like GPS tracking. A great concept but not a stand alone solution as they only work in combo with a smartphone.
Increase the Battery Capacity. The devices that have all that functionality built-in normally require rechargeable batteries and currently last normally 12-48 hours.
So the Battery Life depends on Battery Capacity and Battery consumption.
It is extremely hard to find specifications of the battery capacity, like eg. 900 or 1100 mAh, which would be a very good element to compare given the effect on user experience. Conceptually, the bigger (the battery capacity) the better, although bigger batteries are also physically bigger and heavier.
The more features and functionality, the quicker the battery is empty. To be able to promote battery life, some products are by default set to a power saving mode. What this does is turn OFF the GPS function if there has been no movement for 10 seconds! This means that if the person is sitting still the device will not search for a location as opposed to other devices which searches for a location every couple of minutes and updates the information on their app. See Update frequency for more detail.
So to really compare battery life it is not only the actual capacity of the battery but also how it is used; like the update frequency, and how it updates the location (eg. GPS & Wifi & Bluetooth vs.GPS only).
The Battery Life might be longer than 12-48 hours on standby only, but our tests show that the current batteries will not last 5-6 days if used “normally”...
Charging cradle / magnetic dock
For the solutions that have chargeable batteries, a charging cradle or a magnetic dock are useful; less fiddly than a USB cable, and they can sit in an obvious place in the home permanently connected to a power point. Some watches that have magnetic connections that only connect in a certain way, so you can be sure it's charging.
The providers specify that charging takes between 25 minutes and 4 hours. It greatly varies by the model as it actually depends on the battery capacity and the charging cradle capacity.
If the providers would publish the battery size AND the cradle capacity you could actually check the charging time. Simple math; a 900mAh battery in a 500mAh cradle will take ~ 2 hours to fully charge (assuming the battery is completely empty).
A voice prompt of “Your battery is low. Please recharge your battery”, or a “low battery” warning text message to the nominated contact number 1 is a useful feature to be reminded that a recharge is needed!
5. Style, Size, Weight, Design, and Protection rating
Style: Pendant or Bracelet / Watch
Each style might have a screen, and the models without a screen are also available without a SIM card. In summary, there are 5 options:
A pendant you wear around your neck
You wear on your wrist
All of them feature an SOS button, which the user can press to alert carers.
The choice how to wear the device is very personal. There is not really an advantage of one type over the other, however, types with fall detection function better when worn around the neck, see 11. Fall detection for more detail.
Only devices with a screen can indicate battery and mobile reception levels
1. Pendant without screen
2. Pendant or 5. Bracelet without screen or SIM card
This design requires a nearby & working smartphone. This model can be altered between the two types at anytime, which gives more flexibility.
3. Pendant with screen
This design does not have a touchscreen.
This design has a touchscreen for operation. Some models have a choice between analogue and digital format and offer different watch screen displays.
The more features and functionality, the bigger the size of the device. They vary between small (3.7 x 3.7 x 0.9 cm), medium and large (6.1 x 4.2 x 1.6 cm). Large is more than 3x the small size, but it is still relatively small. The user experience will be affected by the size of the device worn around their neck or their wrist.
If the device has a “small” screen shows it better not show too many features & symbols. Besides that it will be hard to read for the wearer (with an ever decreasing eyesight), it also reduces simplicity to use.
Important to ask if the wrist band has extra loop holes to ensure it fits a wide range of wrist sizes, and if they have a locking possibility so it is harder for the user to remove the watch (although a scissor can do wonders).
The more features and functionality (and hence battery), the heavier the device. They vary between light (12 gram), and “heavy” (100 gram).
Many providers use 20 cent coins as a reference, which might be easier to refer to. However, a 20 cent coin weighs 5.65 grams and the marketing team of some vendors seem to have trouble with the calculations, as eg. 42 grams equals 7.5 coins, and clearly not the same as the 3 coins weight that they advertise! The device weight ranges from as low as 2 coins up to 17 coins.
Most mobile personal alarms look similar to the 5 designs described earlier: Pendant or Bracelet / Watch. They are not bad looking, but not great looking either. One of the reasons why elderly female do not like to wear them is the lack of design. If you are dressed stylish and wear jewellery, the pendant is not really the finishing touch.
The pendant option 2, that you wear around your neck with neither a SIM nor a screen, are available in more stylish designs and are therefore quite popular. See this picture for example (or click here for more details).
Devices are rated on a scale of relative protection (called IP). A water protected device on a 4 to 6 scale is water resistant (eg. IPx4), and can stand basically a shower or rain, while a 7 or 8 are waterproof and can be immersed in water for a period of time, like swimming or bathing. The IP rating indicates both protection against solids, like dust (the 1st digit) and water (2nd digit).
Many providers’ classification is incorrect, for example they call it waterproof while it actually would only withstand a shower (so water resistant only), and might rate their product IPx7, while it should have been ranked IPx4.
If you want to be able to swim with a watch type alarm the device needs to be rated IPx7 or 8.
6. Mobile connectivity
Mobile connectivity is a more technical and difficult topic to grasp, but it is very important for the communication and GPS to work properly! Communication (calling & sms-ing) from and to the device will work almost always, even being indoor.
However, mobile signal coverage could be degraded or non-existent in specific locations due to lack of nearby mobile towers, and certain physical structures or geographic features. Physical structures which may block or inhibit coverage could include basements, lifts, underground car parks, concrete buildings, tunnels and road cuttings. Geographic features which may block or inhibit coverage could include formations such as hills and mountains or even trees.
Most devices that provide GPS tracking need to be in a clear, outdoor area for them to work well. Some devices are capable of using nearby WiFi signals to send location updates, which is an advantage over the models that can only use a mobile signal. See 12. Location tracking for more details if this feature is important to you.
3G vs 4G – what's the difference?
Personal alarm manufacturers would have you believe that 4G models are safer as they provide "better coverage." That's not true. 3G and 4G coverage is dependent on where telcos put their mobile towers.
The only difference in 3G vs, 4G is data transfer speeds. 4G has higher data transfer speeds and increases the amount of data that can be transferred at any given time. This means things like video calling will perform much better.
3G can already handle the small amount of data required to provide eg. live GPS updates. The amount of data that bounces between a personal alarm and the smartphone used to track it is so small, it won't really benefit from 4G.
3G network shutdown
This is where 3G can become a longer-term problem, as 3G services are planned to be disabled in future. Telstra says they will stop 3G services in 2024, but Optus has no planned dates announced...
There's no need to rush out and upgrade to a 4G unit if you already own a 3G one, but if you are looking for a new purchase you could consider a 4G enabled device. 4G are still being sold as "premium" models with a higher price tag, but they will go down over time. On the other hand, the battery capacity will deteriorate significantly within a few years so a more economical purchase used for 3 years might be a smart buy.
Also consider a device that can be connected to alternative networks to Telstra, like Optus and/or Vodafone and check the specs to make sure it supports the required spectrum, instead of Telstra connectivity only.
The (marketing) phrases: “Why have a personal alarm that only works at home when you can have one that works anytime, anywhere?” or “Our product works at home, when shopping, travelling or walking the dog at the park! It literally works everywhere”… are misleading.
Everywhere? Really? No limitations?
Mobile connected devices do have limitations, this is a common characteristic of wireless systems. They use electronic signals like GPS, 3/4G, WIFI, etc. which are not 100% of the time connected, and do not always work everywhere! Nor is any device designed or guaranteed to prevent any loss or injury...
Lower frequencies offering better coverage and penetration
Mobile networks have network coverage limitations. You often hear people say: “I have Telstra and I have 1 bar signal strength”. However, mobile networks have bands (named like B1/B2/B3/B28 etc), based on frequencies like 2100/1900/ 850MHz. So eg. The Telstra network is not just 1 Network but multiple ones. For more detail: Australia carrier network frequencies.
The mobile carrier chooses what radio frequencies they offer their services on, with lower frequency offering coverage over a much greater distance and better penetration through buildings. So you should consider:
the choice of the SIM card (network), but also
what carrier band is available in your location, and
What band/frequency is supported by your mobile alarm.
Sometimes you see a product listed as a ‘dual band’ model for example. What this means is the product will work on more than one frequency/band providing greater options for coverage. If for example the product only works on the 2100 MHz you may find that outside of major cities the product struggles to connect to a mobile network.
It is great service if the product seller checks the buyer available network coverage near their home, to reduce the risk of lack of coverage, but this does not guarantee that coverage!
Users who live near a weak or unreliable mobile signal, like in rural areas, could select an alternative product which can be combined with a signal boosting antenna. This will only improve the performance indoor plus a 1sq km around the residence, and not the mobile signal of a wearable device.
In the near future new (NB-IoT and LTE CatM1) technologies come into play. These types of modules and networks allow for the transfer of small amounts of data over a long period of time and due to the low frequency they operate on can offer a wide range of coverage. In the coming months/years you are likely to see these networks added to the technical specifications.
So if you like an alert system that can cover you everywhere, indoors and outdoors, you unfortunately might end up with two devices. As you can read, understanding the Mobile connectivity part of the device can be harder than you think, and unbiased buying advice might be useful.
7. Stand-alone solution
What is a stand-alone system? A stand-alone device is able to function independently of other hardware. This means the device is not integrated into another device. However, stand-alone can also refer to the software program of the device that can be used by itself and does not require any other software to work.
For many consumers, especially when the user does not have a smartphone or the ability to use one, a stand-alone device will do the job to monitor their loved one. For others the alternatives might be interesting. Let’s look at the 4 options, the device:
The device pairs with a smartphone
This solution turns a smartphone into a safety device. Simply download the app onto the users’ phone, and pair the phone with the key-ring button to allow activation of any SOS alert. Loved ones can monitor the user via an app, or use professional monitoring services.
The device pairs with a base station and a smartphone
The solution allows the user to seamlessly extend their at-home Personal Emergency Response solution to the outside of their home. It’s best suited for users that like to have the same safety features in- and outdoors without the need for a separate dedicated device, and pay twice for a SIM card..
The device’s software can simultaneously monitor multiple users
A care organisation that needs the functionality to track their wanderers (or fleet of workers) all within one screen. The administrator (or their managed service provider on their behalf) can add and manage all devices and users.
The devices’ software can be integrated into another system
A care organisation that has a smart care technology strategy to store all user information in a single care platform, or like to receive alerts in their nurse call system, would like to go for a solution that offers system integration, to centralise management and reporting.
8. Data privacy
Are personal alarms secure?
As the name suggests, personal alarms require a lot of personal data. This isn't an issue in itself, the more important things are:
When the supplier has to set up the device and SIM card for you, they will need details like name, address, date of birth, etc.. However, some gather this by asking you to fill and return a Word document or PDF, rather than a secure online form.
Similarly, some companies don't specify if/how your data in the software (apps or portal) is protected (encrypted).
Do you need to change the default passwords, as some are identical across a number of different models and brands. This is the kind of thing hackers go after.
Within Australia the privacy and storage of customer data is overseen by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner that also manages any notifiable data breaches if it is found that a company has been the subject of hacking where your data has been lost or compromised.
Functional features / Services
Now let’s look at the features the devices differentiate in:
9. Emergency Monitoring
Emergency alerts are either monitored by family or friends of the user, or professionally monitored by an emergency contact centre. Self monitoring is cheaper (up to $20 a month), but can be a stressful occasion for the family or friends, and often creates more anxiety than peace of mind.
Constant monitoring main advantages are:
Call centres can quickly assess the seriousness of the situation, to determine whether relatives or emergency services need to be contacted.
They also reach out if they notice a change in the users typical behaviour (e.g. walking in unfamiliar areas or lack of movement).
Not everybody has family or friends who can or like to be always on standby.
There's always a chance family/friends could miss a phone/sms alert due to the time of day (e.g. sleep hours), poor reception, or something as simple as forgetting your phone is on silent.
Depending on the individual response plan, the Emergency response centre reacts as soon as the device sends a signal. Having help on hand so quickly could get the user out of a bad situation and ensures they get the treatment they need, with no delays.
Emergency responses are time-critical, and its performance can be experienced in response speed and the quality of the response. So you should ask the question: “What should be the response time, and what is the quality of the response?” An average response under 30 seconds is good; a time of less than 15 sec is exceptional.
Any response is better than NO response at all. Many devices will call & send out SMS alerts to all their emergency contacts. In case they can’t answer the call they can call back the device that generated them. It is our experience that many elderly find it hard to name 1 or 2 emergency contact, let alone 5 people.
It requires that the stand-by contacts notice the call and/or SMS and are able to respond! What if that critical person misses the calls? What if they do not get the SMS? The self monitoring requires a guaranteed delivery of the SMS, which no telecom/SMS providers (can) guarantee.
Quality of the Response
However, the quality of the interactions with emergency responders is what should really drive the monitoring decision, as it determines the customer satisfaction. While responders follow a script, just like other services, every person should be calm, speak clearly and always maintain a positive tone. They never should sound bored, in a rush or simply going through the motions.
Every responder should be asking if everything is okay, confirming the information they have and indicate when they are going to end the call and encourage them to activate the alarm if help is needed. These all may seem like minor details, but the difference really stands out when you're comparing ten medical alert services one after the other. This sort of service goes a long way towards alleviating the inherent anxiety for the end-user of calling an emergency.
If the response center does not only monitor Emergency Alerts, but also safety alerts from other optional at-home sensors you would like them to be well trained, have a sense of urgency and ownership, and follow a smooth process.
According to our experience, being referred to a well considered service delivery provider is a better strategic choice than a referral to devices that promote the avoidance of monitoring (fees) as if they are a waste of money...
Monitoring increases peace of mind that a professional will be there every minute of the day. Receiving no or a poor performing service in case of Emergency does not sound like a waste of money when lives are at stake… it could be penny wise pound foolish.
Number of contacts
For self monitoring look for a personal alarm that can accept more than one emergency contact. The more contacts you can have, the better – in case the first contact is away from their phone. Most can handle between 3 and 7.
10. 2-way Communication
Most devices (fitted with their own SIM and phone number) can be called, and the user can answer. Calling the watch allows a 2 way conversation to occur so you can pass on a message, advise them you are running late or simply check that they are ok.
However, most devices are NOT designed for the user to make a call, unless it is an emergency! If calling from the device to a loved one is important, as a great alternative for carrying a mobile phone, you should look for the feature to make a call from the device.
Making call from the device
Some devices can make calls from the watch to select (up to 6) numbers that have been setup, which ensures the user is only calling to people that are trusted. Using the touch screen on the face of the watch, they simply swipe to choose the linked number (or sometimes an image) they wish to call. For both calling out and being called it is important the voice quality is clear and loud enough to hear.
SMS from trusted phones
Some devices can not only send emergency SMS, but also receive SMS. You can send them a quick message or remind them of something they forgot from up to 6 phones.
11. Fall detection
Some Mobile Alarm contains a fall detection feature. This sends an alert when the device falls rapidly which is useful if the device is with someone who's in danger of falling. When an acceleration is detected, followed by a period (often 20- 30 sec) of no movement, the device will generate a fall detection alarm.
Many of the fall detectors have no clinical evidence available! However, some can provide evidence and claim to have highest accuracy industry wide. As technology like the fall detectors are never 100% accurate, and all providers will limit their liability if the device fails to respond to a fall, it might become a real product differentiation, and an important selection criteria, if the provider can provide clinical evidence.
There are False Alarms – Is it Worth the Risk?
One concern about fall detection is that the device can send out false alarms. Yes, this is a genuine issue. No fall detection system is perfect and from time to time the sensors might mistake an ordinary movement such as bending forward, putting the pendant on a table, or getting into bed as a fall and sending out an alarm.
If this happens, the wearer needs only to tell the monitoring centre that there’s no problem. However, in case the device is not monitored family or friends might get false SMS and calls, which will cause additional anxiety instead of peace of mind.
On the flip side, most systems are set so that if they detect movement within eg. 30 seconds after a sudden movement, they don’t send out an alarm. This is to prevent false signals – the system assumes that if you can move, you can press your alarm. Because of this, it’s always a good idea to press the help button after a real fall, just to make extra sure help is coming.
Some of the devices have the ability to cancel the fall alert sequence before the alarm goes off. Hopefully they will only use the cancellation in case of a true false alarm...
It’s clear that fall detection systems aren’t perfect. That said, we firmly believe they are worth the investment, especially for seniors who are particularly at risk from falls, such as those with balance issues, unsteadiness on their feet, or a history of falls.
It’s far better to risk the occasional false alarm than be left without a way to get help in the event of a fall. The solution providers are well aware of the potential for false alarms, and so are prepared for them to happen.
Radar fall detection
The future is bringing us radar technology, a wireless fall sensor that does not require the resident to wear any detection device; see Radar Detector for more detail. It is the perfect fall sensor for any home or retirement facility, however, this will not be a mobile option.
Some devices can send alerts if the device doesn't move for a specified amount of time.
Some devices can send alerts if the device starts moving rapidly, say by the wearer getting into a car or train, then it alerts a contact.
12. Location tracking
Location tracking can help to locate a person who is unable to communicate their position or condition. Four important elements are the:
Accuracy based on update frequency,
Wandering alerts or Geo-fencing, and the
This is designed to A) track the user while they're carrying the device, or b) alert the carer where the user’s location is in case of an Emergency. So either Actively or Passively tracking the user.
The effectiveness of GPS location can be reduced by being inside a building (like user’s home), tall buildings, or dense developments. If the solution can also use nearby WiFi or Bluetooth (via the charging cradle at-home) it increases the effectiveness.
Hence, products that do not have the WiFi capability are unlikely to be able to provide location information all the time if the wearer is indoors as it relies purely on GPS locations with satellites which are generally only accessible outdoors. So in lifts, shopping centres, and other constructions like independent living villages or at home the product might have no up-to-date location signal.
If live or history tracking of the user is an important criteria it is the best and easiest way using a solution that comes with an application on the mobile or computer. Even though some models are able to do tracking by sending an SMS request and returning an SMS with a link with Google location coordinates, it is a more cumbersome way of tracking.
Accuracy based on update frequency
More frequent updates improves location accuracy, but the pulse of the update can vary by device. Some update every 6 minutes and every 20 seconds when SOS is activated, others update every 12 hours. More frequent updates reduces the battery life, and could render the alarm useless (hence the importance to understand the battery life and its effectiveness based on the settings). If the device depends on GPS only (vs. GPS & WiFi), do not forget to charge the battery (basically) every day.
Wandering alerts or Geo-fencing
When you have responsibility for someone who wanders, you might want to be alerted when that person goes outside of their known areas. Wandering alerting is called Geo-fencing and works by setting up a virtual fence. When the device crosses this virtual fence, the device sends an alert to a contact.
The different products vary between the effectiveness, the ease of use involved in setting up a geo-fence, and the alert response time & accuracy if the wearer leaves the designated area (depending on the update frequency).
Geo-fencing has often two approaches:
Radius – creates a virtual fence in a circle.
Polygon – more flexible than the radius, as it means you can create a map that allows for some freedom (e.g. providing access to a nearby park).
Some solutions provide the software to create geo-fences yourself, others will do it for you as a service when you provide them the street information.
Many devices follow the same pendant or smartwatch design. The physical components are often produced by the same (mostly Chinese) manufacturers, and sold to retailers who are free to create their own software and apps. So if live tracking, or geo-fencing is important to you your selection might go out to the solutions that come with software (an app or portal) that enable that.
Unfortunately there are many products on the market that don’t meet or comply with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) standards and as such this is a key feature that you can look for when choosing a GPS safety device that can help differentiate between the ones you should be considering.
“How can I tell if they are compliant?”
Once a supplier has successfully satisfied the requirements of the relevant standards, they are required to label their product with the regulatory compliance mark (RCM.) This mark should be a permanent feature on the product itself and can also be found on the external packaging.
The best personal alarms depending on needs
The best personal alarm for the elderly
If the person has:
Limited mobility – consider features such as fall detection, 2-way communication and emergency monitoring.
Dementia – consider features such as location tracking, and emergency monitoring, which can help locate a person unable to communicate their position or condition. Solutions are typically lower cost due to the increased chance of loss or damage.
The best personal alarm for a person with a disability
The challenge in caring for a person with a disability is that there are a range of different requirements.
If your needs are substantial then consider a full care solution with emergency monitoring.
The best personal alarm for independent people living alone
You need to consider the physical and cognitive capabilities of the user in this instance. If the person:
If physically and mentally sound, then a self-activated alarm should suffice. Consider whether they would be able to activate the panic button during an emergency, even if they are injured. Look for features such as fall or lack of movement detection, voice panic activation, and automatic GPS tracking.
Has cognitive or physical limitations, daily activity monitoring with a paid monitoring service may be a better solution than a mobile personal alarm, as representatives can quickly alert emergency services if their monitoring system detects an issue. The benefit here is that the onus is not on the individual to alert anyone themselves.
Where can I get funding for a personal alarm?
Government services can also help point you in the right direction:
The Commonwealth Home Support program or a Home Care Package provides government support for individuals that need access to services and financial assistance, required for independent living as they age. Some personal alarms are available for free, or at a reduced rate, through this program.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) can also provide funding.
Veterans can also receive support through their own government program.
When you are ready to select
Before deciding on a mobile personal alarm, we suggest asking:
How much do I have to pay for the product and setup fee?
What are the recurring costs, what is included, and can I cancel at any time?
What happens if I need customer care?
Can you explain to me the effective battery life?
What is the type, size, weight, design and water protection?
How do you ensure mobile connectivity?
Can it be added to an in-home solution or to my mobile?
Can you ensure my data privacy stays protected?
What is the typical monitoring response time for a call?
Can the user make a (non emergency) call?
How good is the fall detector, and can you provide (clinical) evidence?
Does location tracking come with an mobile or desktop app
Why trust eHomeCare on Smart Care Technology?
When you are having difficulty working out the differences between all the products on offer, or what are the 12 things you need to take into consideration when you are getting a “Life alerts” system, for your loved ones or yourself, you might want to ask for our free advice?
Over the years, we've published articles and guides covering a wide variety of Care Technology topics, for Safety, Health or Engagement for Carers and Elderly. Every time we test senior care products, we compare features and performance aimed at preserving or improving a senior's quality of life and independence.
We are not aiming to advise our best pick overall. We should educate you and become aware of the benefits and limitations of products and features, to assist you in your selection process with ‘the best outcome at the end’ in mind.
Hubert van Dalen is Managing Director of eHomeCare, who advise and implement smart care technology solutions for the health, aged and disability care sector.
* Best. statements that a mobile personal alarm product scored the best personal alert system, based on the highest score in Choice tests, are not completely accurate. An organisation like Choice doesn’t test all personal alert systems as they exclude testing of eg. emergency monitored devices or features like Voice calling, and geofencing. They only state that they feel they have a duty to inform which products they included in their test reasonably meet their claims based on real-world tests, and they do not (longer) recommend any personal alarms.
** Work (almost) everywhere: there will always be areas described as being within a coverage area of a mobile network where a mobile alarm/device will not work. This is a common characteristic of wireless systems.