Call for Help

A variety of devices make independence a little safer for people with disabilities

Article Highlights:
  • Several devices are available to summon help when people with disabilities find themselves in distress.
  • It’s important to compare prices and benefits when considering buying a home emergency alert system.
  • Personal medical information can be stored on handy key fob memory sticks.
by Bill Norman on July 1, 2010 - 11:31am

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 3

People with disabilities are more apt than the general population to encounter situations in which they need help, whether it’s emergency medical treatment or simply assistance getting from one location to another in the house. Fortunately, several devices and services are available to help out in these circumstances.

Cell phones

It’s logical that cell phones, given their presence nearly everywhere, should be considered an emergency communication option.

Most cell phones can be preprogrammed to call 911 at the touch of a button. The same is true for frequently called numbers of friends and relatives.

However, if a person can’t speak, cell phones are very limited in their ability to relay messages. If the phone is dropped, say by a person in a wheelchair whose disability precludes being able to pick up or retrieve objects, the device is worthless.

A honking horn may summon help

MedicTag is a computer memory stick that contains a user's vital medical information. First responders can download the stick's information to a computer.

Anyone who owns a motor vehicle manufactured in the last 10 years almost certainly has a key fob with lock/unlock and panic buttons that control those vehicle functions electronically from a distance.

The panic button on such a device could be a valuable noisemaker if someone with a disability needs to summon help. To improve the likelihood of others not merely dismissing the incessant honking as a false alarm, neighbors can be asked to call 911 if they hear repeated honking.

Emergency alert systems

A receiver/transmitter from Bay Area Medical is complemented by wrist and neck pendants that also contain a call-for-help button.

Dozens of companies offer essentially the same type of medical or emergency response system, for which they charge a monthly fee (usually between $25 and $35).

Geoff Gross, a safety consultant with Medical Guardian Medical Alert System in Philadelphia (800-322-0955), estimates that about 10 percent of his company’s client base are people with disabilities; most are senior citizens.

Most systems have two primary in-home components: a help button (worn on a bracelet or neck pendant) and a small but very sensitive send/receive unit or speaker box that connects to the home’s regular telephone system.

Nearly all send/receive boxes are meant to sit on a desktop or counter. One exception is MediPendant (877-342-2929), which incorporates all the electronic circuitry in a neck pendant about the size of a small walkie-talkie.

Another pendant-slung device, the Philips Lifeline with AutoAlert option (800-380-3111), is designed to call for help if it senses the wearer has fallen and is unable to ask for assistance. The cost: between $50 and $60 a month.

With most types of equipment, users in a predicament press the help button. Doing so activates the send/receive unit, which, in the case of stationary units, can pick up the user’s voice from about anywhere in the house. The unit also dials an emergency response operator at a central monitoring station, and within a minute that person can initiate a conversation with the distressed signaler.

If the signaler can’t speak, the operator will follow whatever procedure was chosen by the user, such as calling 911 or a family member. The operator also can call a predesignated list of people who should be notified.

Comparison Shopping for Emergency Response Devices
What is the monthly cost of service? Monthly rates can vary: $10 or more per month among different companies
Is a contract required? Contracts, including minimum required periods of service, should be avoided.
Availability of customer service? Not all companies have live operators available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
How long in business? Long-established companies usually benefit from experience.
What is the company's Better Business Bureau rating? Does it have unresolved customer complaints? Any BBB rating other than "A" should be reason for questions and concern.
Is this the company's only business? For some companies, emergency response is not their core business.
Who owns/operates the monitoring center? What training do operators receive? Is the center listed and regulated by Underwriters Laboratories (UL)? Many companies don't have their own monitoring centers; they pay a fee to large call centers, often in another state, whose operators respond to alarms.
Are costs for extra equipment reasonable? Costs can range widely for equipment such as additional help buttons and lock boxes.
What is the company's cancellation policy? Customers should be able to cancel their policy at any time without penalty.
Will the company ship, oversee installation and activate equipment at no cost? Many companies do not charge for these services.
What is the company's equipment repair and replacement policy? Most companies will replace or repair faulty equipment at no charge.
Is the help button (transmitter) waterproof? Some companies' help buttons are waterproof, and can be taken into the shower or bath.
How long will the send/receive unit's back-up battery last? If the main power is off, the device must rely on its internal back-up battery.
What is the operating range of the help button and send/receive unit? The help button should be able to activate the send/receive unit from anywhere in the home.
Testimonials from system owners? Companies should be willing to provide contact information for others who use their services.

Additional options are available. Most companies, for a fee, will provide additional help buttons that can be located throughout a dwelling. They’ll also provide lock boxes containing keys to the home. The boxes have a combination lock that first responders such as EMTs can open when given the code by the central monitoring operator.

Comparison shopping

When shopping around, service may be the most important criterion.

Alan Wu, marketing manager for Bay Alarm Medical, headquartered in Concord, Calif. (877-522-9633), said emergency medical systems are more effective than calling 911 because, unlike a 911 operator, staff in central monitoring stations can immediately bring up on their computer screens all of a caller’s vital information, including medical details, that the client provided when opting for the service.

Wu said that although many different companies offer emergency alert systems, “all work pretty much the same. There are only about three big vendors who make equipment like this for the entire market. Anyone can make a two-way box; it’s the service that sets companies apart.”

Companies that sell emergency alert systems usually have a lot in common with their competitors, but when shopping, a potential buyer should carefully compare costs and services. On their websites, companies are quick to tout the merits of their particular system, and just as quick to denigrate those of their rivals.

For a list of good questions to ask, see “Comparison Shopping for Emergency Response Devices,” table above.

Satellites, GPS and Google Maps

If home emergency alert systems aren’t working due to power or telephone company outages, or if a person is traveling in remote areas, one possible alternative is a telephone that sends and receives its messages via orbiting satellites. The biggest downside is the cost of the phones and the charges for making calls. Purchase price alone of a well-known Iridium satellite system phone is $1,395 for a current model.

Other devices that utilize satellite communications technology are known as SENDs (Satellite Emergency Notification Devices).

One version, from a Milpitas, Calif., company called SPOT (866-651-7768), is a small, lightweight handheld unit that incorporates a global positioning system (GPS) to plot the user’s location to within a few yards, almost anywhere on Earth. It’s not a telephone. The user can press one button to tell friends and family that he/she is okay. SPOT sends a preset message (up to 148 characters) that arrives either as a text message or e-mail. It also plots the sender’s location in latitude and longitude and on Google Maps for the folks at home.

SPOT is a satellite emergency notification device that sends distress signals from most Earth land masses up to orbiting satellites, then down to monitoring stations.

SPOT can send “I need help” messages of both nonemergency and critical varieties. If the user sends a noncritical message, it’s repeated every five minutes for an hour. If the message is more desperate, the device sends a call for help every five minutes for as long as the battery holds out, which could be as long as five to seven days.

SPOT media and public relations manager Derek Moore said the company has a dedicated phone line to the International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center for the purpose of relaying the SOS. SPOT II units cost about $150, and a year’s basic service plan runs $100.

Optional packages include the Tracking Progress feature that tells people at home where the user is (plotted on Google Maps) every 10 minutes. Another option provides professional rescue services (covering costs up to $50,000 per occurrence) anywhere on the planet.

Accessories to consider

Some electronic accoutrements that are not emergency notification devices nonetheless may work well in conjunction with them. One example is a gizmo such as the $35 MedicTag (866-723-3243).

MedicTag is essentially a computer memory stick on a key chain (or a neck cord), with a few embellishments. Its purpose is to store personal medical information that may be important when a person in an emergency situation needs immediate medical attention.

Most telemergency alert devices contain a very sensitive receiver/transmitter that can pick up a person's voice throughout the house in case of emergency.

MedicTag contains a template for information such as name/address, insurance company, physician’s name/number, contact information for family members, and details about disabilities, medications currently being used and allergies/sensitivities to drugs or other substances. The device then can be plugged into the USB port of a computer and its information viewed, printed out or downloaded.

A similar device, the size of a credit card, and also with a retractable plug for computer USB ports, is the MedIDCard (877-916-3343). It sells for about $43.

Presumably, a person could simply purchase an inexpensive memory stick and load essential information on it in the same way, prominently identifying it as “Important Medical Information.”

Depending on a person’s location and degree of mobility, one — or even a combination of the emergency notification devices described above — may be a wise investment in security.

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