When you buy an old-school PERS system, this is what can happen

Have you considered buying a PERS system for your aging parent or parents?

PERS systems (Personal Emergency Response Systems) are great way to help keep family members safe. They allow them to quickly and easily make a phone call, either to a professional monitoring center or to friends and family, in the case of an emergency.

But not all PERS systems are created equal.

And though none of them will protect you in every single possible situation, some have larger issues.

I’m talking specifically about the old-school PERS systems that were first designed in the 1980s and are still sold today by many companies, including the ones who spend millions of dollars advertising them on TV.

The way these systems work is that you wear a small panic button on your wrist or your belt or on a necklace. This button is a lot like the button you have for your garage door opener. All it does is send a signal to your base station that activates the base station. The base station calls the monitoring center and an operator comes on the line. The problem is, the communication with the monitoring center takes place over a speakerphone. The speakerphone is in the old-school base station, which is near a phone jack in your house, sitting there.

If you’re not relatively close to that base station, it’s hard to have a conversation.

If there’s a lot of other noise in the house, it’s hard to have a conversation.

If there are closed doors or running water, it’s hard to have a conversation.

But does this really matter?

When you call these PERS companies, they’ll say it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because once they receive an alert they have a specific way of responding, even if they can’t hear you. First they’ll call your house to see if the alarm is activated by accident. If you don’t answer, they’ll send an ambulance.

If they can hear you, but they can’t understand you, they send an ambulance.

So far, so good. If you fall and can’t get up – maybe your hip was broken – this emergency protocol will ensure that sooner or later the ambulance will come. It might involve a delay of a few minutes while the PERS monitoring center tries to call your house and waits for the phone to ring and then hangs up. It might involve a small delay with your local emergency management services because there might be other emergencies going on where they know exactly what’s happening rather than suspect might be a false alarm. But help will come.

However, this frequently breaks down completely in the case of a fire.

Recently I read a newspaper article about a woman who died in a fire after passing a medical alert button. This is not the first time I’ve read an article like this. Sometimes people are able to communicate to the alarm monitoring center that there is a fire. But that’s the exception. Most of the articles that I’ve read are talking about a situation in which although the person pressed the button they were not able to communicate that there was a fire and the monitoring center did not let the local dispatch services know there was a fire.

Why the system breaks down with fires

Imagine yourself in a room in your apartment, waking up to discover that there is a fire. You are disoriented, you’re confused, and there’s an incredible amount of noise from the fire and from the smoke alarms. This is particularly true if you’re in an apartment building, or some other structure with a commercial grade alarm system. These are much louder than the little ceiling mounted smoke alarms that most of us have in our homes.

This amount of noise will make it very difficult for the operator at the medical alert monitoring center to be able to hear you clearly.

The problem is compounded if the PERS base station is on the other side of the door, as it is for most people. Most people put their base station in the living room or kitchen, not in the bedroom.

So if you buy your parent a standard, old-school PERS system, you need to be aware of the trade-offs that you’re making. The system will be effective in many situations, but it has distinct limitations, especially in the case of a fire.

A good reason to make this trade-off would be to lower your total cost of the system. Certain systems, like those from Bay Alarm Medical, are available for as little as $20 a month. Much better PERS systems that have more modern technology where the panic button is actually a tiny cordless phone, run about $30 a month. If this $10 a month is going to make or break your budget, then by all means make the decision in a way that preserves your budget.

But beware. Many companies sell old-school PERS for a lot more than $20 a month. Some of the most-advertised national brands fall into this category. You end up paying a lot of money for old technology when you don’t need to.

To learn more about PERS systems, visit http://elderlymedicalalertsystems.com.


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