Personal Emergency Response Systems
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Article information courtesy of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Remember that line from the classic late 80’s commercial? It was for a company called LifeCall, which sold a pendant that would automatically get in touch with a dispatch service to help senior citizens through an emergency at home. But let’s face it, we probably weren’t thinking about actually using a device like that—even though most people can’t forget the line. But as time goes by, so does our acceptance that there is a need for what is called a Personal Emergency Response System (PERS)—an electronic device that lets you summon help in an emergency. If you are thinking about buying a PERS (also called a Medical Emergency Response System) for yourself or a loved one, here’s what you need to know.
In this Guide
How a PERS Works
A PERS has three components: a small radio transmitter (a help button carried or worn by the user); a console connected to the user's telephone; and an emergency response center that monitors calls.
When emergency help (medical, fire, or police) is needed, the PERS user presses the transmitter's help button. It sends a radio signal to the console. The console automatically dials one or more pre-selected emergency telephone numbers. Most systems can dial out even if the phone is in use or off the hook (this is called "seizing the line").
PERS are programmed to telephone an emergency response center where the caller is identified. The center will try to determine the nature of the emergency. Center staff also may review your medical history and check to see who should be notified. If the center cannot contact you or determine whether an emergency exists, it will alert emergency service providers to go to your home. With most systems, the center will monitor the situation until the crisis is resolved.
Transmitters are light-weight, battery-powered devices that are activated by pressing one or two buttons. They can be worn on a chain around the neck or on a wrist band, or they can be carried on a belt or in a pocket. Because the transmitter is battery-powered, the batteries must be checked periodically to ensure they work. Some units have an indicator to help you know when to change batteries. When reviewing a service, look for units that have a battery life of at least five years and are waterproof so they can be worn in the bath or shower (where many slip and fall accidents occur).
The console acts as an automatic dialing machine and sends the emergency alert through the phone lines. It works with any private telephone line and generally does not require rewiring. If you have more than one phone extension, a special jack or wiring may be required to enable the console to seize the line.
Emergency Response Center
There are two types of emergency response centers - provider-based and manufacturer-based. Provider-based centers usually are located in the user's local area and are operated by hospitals or social service agencies. Manufacturer-based operations usually have one national center. Sometimes, consumers who purchase systems can choose between provider-based and manufacturer-based centers, but consumers who rent systems from a PERS manufacturer usually must use its national center.
Be sure to ask about the training that members of the response center receive. Some, such as Philips Lifeline, claim that their response center staff receive the same training as 911 operators.
Purchasing, Renting, or Leasing a PERS
A PERS can be purchased, rented, or leased. Neither Medicare nor Medicaid, in most states, will pay for the purchase of equipment, nor will most insurance companies. The few insurance companies that do pay require a doctor's recommendation. Some hospitals and social service agencies may subsidize fees for low-income users. Purchase prices for a PERS normally range from $200 to more than $1,500. However, some consumers have reported paying $4,000 to $5,000 for a PERS. You also will have to pay an installation fee and a monthly monitoring charge which may cost from $10 to $30.
Rentals are widely available through national manufacturers, local distributors, hospitals, and social service agencies. Monthly fees may range from $15 to $50 and include the monitoring service. Look for a service that allows for a month-to-month contract in case you are dissatisfied with, or you no longer require, the service.
Lease agreements can be long-term or lease-to-purchase. If you lease, review the contract carefully before signing. Make special note of cancellation clauses, which may require you to pay a cancellation fee or other charges.
Before purchasing, renting, or leasing a system, check the unit for defects. Ask to see the warranty and service contract and get any questions resolved. Ask about the repair policy. Find out how to arrange for a replacement or repair if a malfunction occurs.
If a PERS salesperson solicits you by phone, and you are interested in the device, ask for information about prices, system features, and services. You can then use the information to comparison shop among other PERS providers. If the salesperson is reluctant to provide information except through an in-home visit, you may want to consider doing business with another company. In-home sales visits can be high pressure, and the salesperson may urge you to buy before you are ready to make a decision.
Before doing business with companies selling PERS, you may want to contact your local consumer protection agency, state Attorney General's Office, and Better Business Bureau (BBB). Ask if any complaints have been filed against the companies you are considering. You also may want to get recommendations from friends, neighbors, or relatives who use emergency response systems.
To help you shop for a PERS that meets your needs, consider the following suggestions:
- Check out several providers before making a decision.
- Find out if you can use the system with other response centers. For example, can you use the same system if you move?
- Ask about the pricing, features, and servicing of each system and compare costs.
- Make sure the system is easy to use and is waterproof so it can be worn in the shower or bath.
- Test the system to make sure it works from every point in and around your home. Make sure nothing interferes with transmissions.
- Read your purchase, rental, or lease agreement carefully before signing. If renting, look for month-to-month contract so you can cancel the service if no longer required or you are not satisfied.
Questions to Ask the Response Center:
- Is the monitoring center available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
- What is the average response time in your location?
- What kind of training does the center staff receive?
- What procedures does the center use to test systems in your home? How often are tests conducted?
There are dozens of providers out there — these two are worth a look:
Medical Home Alert ($30 per month with no setup fee) Recommended by Good Housekeeping and Better Business Bureau accredited. www.medicalalert.com
Philips Lifeline ($40 per month plus $75 setup fee) One of the major PERS equipment providers. Staffs their own U.S.-based call center with 911 trained operators. Used by the American Red Cross for their senior programs. www.lifelinesys.com