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Personal Emergency Response Systems
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
A personal emergency response system (PERS) is an electronic
device designed to let the user summon help in an emergency. It
has three components: a small, battery-powered radio transmitter
with a help button; a console connected to the user's telephone;
and an emergency response center that monitors calls. When the
button is pressed, it signals the console, which automatically
dials one or more preprogrammed numbers. Most systems can dial
out even if the telephone is off the hook. When its button is
pressed, a radio signal prompts a machine connected to the telephone
to call the monitoring center for help. The monitoring center
usually tries to call back to find out what is wrong. If the center
is unable to reach the person or help is needed, the center will
try to reach a designated person (friend, family member) to follow
up the call. If a medical emergency appears evident, an ambulance
or other emergency provider will be dispatched.
There are two main types of emergency response centers. 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.
The device can be purchased, rented, or leased. The purchase prices
normally range from $200 to more than $1500. However, some consumers
have paid several thousand dollars. There is also a small installation
fee and a monthly monitoring charge of $10 to $30. Devices can
also be rented for from $15 to $50 per month, which usually includes
the monitoring service. Lease agreements can be long-term or can
include an option to buy. Some contracts have a cancellation charge.
The National Consumer Law Center has noted the following problems:
- Consumers are told that the equipment will be maintained,
serviced or repaired in a timely and efficient manner, when in
fact, requests for service or repairs are not responded to in
a timely fashion, and purchasers are treated with rudeness, hostility,
and contempt when they attempt to report operational problems;
- Consumers are assured they may discontinue the service at
any time but are not told they are liable for the entire amount
of the contract if they do;
- Consumers have been misled as to the total cost of the system
they are purchasing;
- Consumers are quoted monthly installment prices and then
are billed at a much higher rate;
- Consumers are told that the PERS bypasses the 911 emergency
system and is much more responsive than those systems and that
the product enjoys a special arrangement with local law enforcement
that insures that their calls receive special attention;
- Some unscrupulous companies don't set fixed prices for their
equipment; salespeople are instructed to set a price at a percentage
of the value of the consumer's house or the consumer's yearly
- Other objectionable sales tactics have included salespeople
arriving at the consumers house immediately upon their return
home from the hospital, to pressure them to purchase a PERS;
some salespeople have stayed as long as four hours and have told
consumers that they cannot or will not leave until the contract
is signed; sales people have used "price drops," where
the consumer is initially quoted an inflated price which is later
dramatically reduced; and that sales staff were instructed to
"wear down" the consumer, by spending as long as six
hours in the consumer's home, inventing "horror stories"
about what could happen if the PERS is not purchased .
A local social agency might be the best source of referral
to prospective vendors. The Federal Trade Commission recommends
the following precautions:
- Check out several systems before making a decision.
- Ask about the pricing, features, and servicing of each system,
and compare costs.
- Make sure that the system is easy to use. Buttons should
be easy to operate and batteries easy to change.
- Ask whether the monitoring center is available 24 hours a
day, what kind of training its operators receive, and what the
average response time is.
- Test to be sure that the system works from every point in
and around your home. Make sure nothing interferes with transmissions.
- If unsure of a company's reputation, check with the Better
- Read the written agreement carefully before signing it .
For Additional Information
Quackwatch Home Page
This article was posted on April 20,
older Americans avoid problems with personal emergency response
systems. National Consumer Law Center Web site, accessed
emergency response systems. Federal Trade Commission, March