Millions of people own medical alert devices — essentially panic buttons worn on the wrist or a pendant. The people who rely on these devices are predominantly senior citizens. They and their loved ones get peace of mind believing that in the event of a fall or other emergency, if the user can’t reach the phone to call 911, the alert device is just as good.
Unfortunately, that peace of mind may not be well founded. Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org tested an array of devices and found disturbing deficiencies. Most devices delayed getting to 911. That’s not good in a life-or-death emergency. And getting 911 help is a major selling point in ads for these gadgets.
If you or a loved one is depending on a medical alert device, or you are thinking about getting one, consider this before buying:
Delays waiting for an operator to answer: The first thing to keep in mind is that in most cases, pressing the alert button doesn’t connect directly to 911, it connects to a company call center. That means the user must wait for the call center to respond, and then wait for it to connect to 911. That makes it all the more important for the call center to respond promptly.
“Response time is absolutely critical for effective emergency response, and it’s more critical the more serious the emergency,” said Christopher Carver, director of public safety answering point/911 operations for the National Emergency Number Association.
That’s why, at peak traffic, government 911 centers aim to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds and 95 percent within 20 seconds.
Checkbook tested how long it took selected monitoring services to answer by pressing the button on nine devices a total of 290 times.
Call centers for only three devices answered in 30 seconds or less, on average. Three others took more than a minute, on average. In individual trials, some took two to three minutes; one made us wait more than three minutes.
A one-minute wait during a medical emergency is a long time. Two, three or more minutes is an eternity. The company with the shortest wait times during Checkbook’s tests was GreatCall — its operators answered within 23 seconds, on average. LifeFone had the longest waits: Its operators kept Checkbook’s researchers waiting one minute, three seconds, on average.
A few of the tested services made Checkbook’s researchers wait three minutes or longer at least once during its tests.
Delays getting to 911: Even for devices that got answered fastest, that’s just the company call center response — not real 911. The times we clocked don’t include additional delays you might experience waiting for a company operator to figure out what your emergency is (especially if you can’t talk because of a stroke), call your local 911 center, and relay information to the 911 dispatcher.
Most of the alert devices studied thus delay your ambulance by inserting typically lesser-trained agents between you and the top guns of emergency dispatch.
“Any interaction outside the scope of the 911 center has the potential to increase the amount of time between the discovery of an incident and the dispatch of emergency response resources, assuming all other things are equal,” Carver said. “Any addition to the time of response has a negative impact on the outcome.”
Location problems: In Checkbook testing, medical alert companies often had trouble determining where the calls were coming from — even within a reasonable margin of error.
That jibes with the complaints of 911 managers, who say they often “were not able to get a good location, or the location was from an hour before, or there was no phone number, so we couldn’t call them back,” said Angelina Candelas-Reese, 911 systems manager for Arlington County, Va.
“Location information is the most critical piece, because if we can’t find you, we can’t help you,” said Martha Carter, 911 administrator for Caddo Parish 911, which covers Shreveport, La.
Still want one? Because of the problems found, Checkbook could not recommend most of the devices tested. That said, medical alert devices could be helpful to callers who have a less-than-911 problem. “Nine times out of 10, when people press our button, they don’t necessarily need 911. They want us to call someone else,” such as a friend or relative, said Bob Kelley, president of ResponseNow.
If you decided you do want a medical alert device:
• Consider the GreatCall Lively Mobile, the only device tested able to call local 911 directly, bypassing the company call center. It had the fastest average response time. It also taps recent advances in cellular 911 location technology, which can deliver greater precision and promises to dramatically improve emergency response times.
• Shop first on the considerations raised here, secondarily on price, which ranged from about $130 to $625 the first year for device and monitored service.
• Test response time and location accuracy during a 30-day free trial by hitting that button a dozen or more times at different hours, days and locations. (Device makers recommend such testing — so don’t be squeamish.) Unacceptable performance? Return it.
• When you get your device, complete your customer profile with as much detail as possible about medical conditions and prescriptions, including dosage and times per day. The more call center operators know, the better they and emergency responders can help.