Medical Emergency Call Buttons – FAILURE

This is, or could be, of vital importance to those of you who have an emergency alert system or what is commonly known as “panic buttons” for contacting emergency help.  If you have one of these plans, they appear to have a basic flaw under these conditions:

  1.  The “telephone” line used to send the panic signal to the monitoring station operates via a cable system, and
  2. There is a power outage at the time the emergency occurs.

Some providers are:  LifeLink®, LifeWatch USA, Pioneer Emergency Medical Alarms, Medical Alert™, Life Station® and Philips LifeLine®,  to name a few, and under most circumstance provide fantastic protection.  However, if the electrical power goes out and an emergency happens where the wearer of the signaling device or “button” activates it, NO telephone call goes through.

Why, you ask?  Because when the electricity goes out, so does the cable connection box which is powered by household current.  This prevents the system from sending the emergency signal.

When these emergency systems were first developed, everyone had the “old” telephone systems provided by the Bell System, a subsidiary, a sister company, or an offshoot.  They all carried the phone call through a dedicated telephone line, which is powered by the telephone company. 

Many people have subsequently switched over to other types of providers, in particular cable companies who sell “bundled” services including TV cable, Internet and phone service.  Unfortunately for our discussion, these require household power to operate.  If the power goes off, so do the phones and with them the “panic button” stops working.

What happened for me to be writing this article?  My mother has one of the emergency call systems.  She lives independently, so it gives her a level of confidence that if she needs emergency help, it is as near as the necklace she wears in the house around her neck.  And it gives us reassurance that if something happens, she can summon help immediately.  She does have a computer and thus the internet, and she also has cable for her TV.  In a cost saving move, she signed up for a bundled program where the total cost for all three through one provider was substantially less than buying each one individually.  In doing so, she cancelled her Verizon phone line.

One afternoon, I heard over the radio that her neighborhood was in the midst of a power outage, so I called to find out how she was doing.  The call would not go through.  No phone service.  Then I recalled that in working on her computer, I discovered that everything went through the cable router.

Putting this all together I determined that during the outage she could not make outgoing calls because her phones needed house electricity to work.  By itself this is not really bad, but in thinking about it, I wondered the impact on the emergency call system.  I made a few phone calls to several of the above mentioned emergency service providers and they readily acknowledged that their systems do not work with a phone system that requires house power (such as the cable systems) when the power goes out. 

This is not a call to panic; these systems work most of the time just fine.  This is an unanticipated situation that developed through improvements in technology and cost savings afforded by newer systems. 

Customers who continue to have phone service by the “phone company” have no problems and neither will the others until the power goes out.  Does it go out often?  For most people the answer is no, it does not.  But it is a risk.  Coverage is not 100% if the user opts for cable-type providers.  Should emergency call providers inform customers of these facts?  I think so.  At least customers should be made aware that if they subscribe to the system and do not have “phone company” service, there may be service interruptions.  Likewise, customers with “phone company” service when signing up for systems should be warned that if they change providers, they may have service interruptions if they lose electricity.

So, what are the options and what do we do about it?  Below is a summary of what I think they are, but for us (to help with Mom’s peace of mind too) we will reconnect the telephone company phone service with a very basic and inexpensive  system (no long distance, caller ID or any frills) and dedicate that to the emergency system.  She will continue to have the cable phone for all other calls, long distance and so on.  This will give us an added benefit of a way to contact her in the event of a power outage as well as guarantee she will always have an active emergency system.

Options:

  1. If the home where you are concerned about the emergency call system has regular telephone service, there is nothing to do.  However, you should be aware that if you (or the person living in that home) decide to change providers, you may have service interruptions if you or they lose electric power.
  2. If the home has cable-service telephone connection, consider adding a telephone line.  For some this expense may not be possible.  In that event, everyone should be aware that during a power outage there will be a lapse in coverage and try to make personal contact regularly with the home.  Basically, live with it.
  3. If the home has cable-service telephone connection and adding a line is not possible, make sure the people in the home keep their cell phone on their person as the backup to the emergency system.  Someone may have to program 911 into the phone.  In addition, the phone will have to be kept charged at all times.  (One reason this is not an option for us, Mom’s cell phone is not her priority.)
  4. During my research I did find at least one company that offers an addition to their basic emergency service that provides a panic button for use away from the home.  It uses the same sort of communication technology that cell phones use.  I did not price it out, but it may be an alternative to use around the home in the event of a power outage.

I discovered this by chance and hope that the information is helpful.  For some people it may be alarming, but there seem to be simple solutions.  I hope this will be useful to users and perhaps might spur some providers to address the situation and at least let subscribers know the full story.  Send me your comments at my blog (www.williamhuebnerjr.com). 

Thanks.

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22 Responses to Medical Emergency Call Buttons – FAILURE

  1. Bill,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post about medical alert systems and cable-based phone systems, and for referencing our company, LifeStation. You raise valid concerns about how these phone services are affected by power outages, and what that means for your medical alert system protection. When a customer orders LifeStation medical alert service, we ask them about their phone service and explain to them the issues regarding power outages and non-traditional phone services. We include this information in their LifeStation welcome packet as well.

    Please note that many digital voice cable modems integrate a battery backup system. These can provide up to eight hours or more of continuous phone service in the event of a power outage. Customers should contact their cable company to see if they already have a device with backup or if one is available. If the cable company doesn’t offer a backup battery, they can purchase a small uninterruptible power supply (UPS) from any office supply store, Walmart, Target, etc. This is essentially a power strip with an integrated battery from companies such as APC and CyberPower.

    In case your readers were wondering, the LifeStation medical alert console itself also has an integrated battery backup that provides up to 32 hours of protection. And the help button has an integrated battery that typically lasts up to four years in operation, so it’s unaffected by power outages.

    Regarding your fourth alternative, we also offer the LifeStation 911 Phone (http://www.lifestation.com/price-equipments.php) to our customers. These types of devices do work anywhere and aren’t affected by power outages.

    I hope this is helpful and thank you again for raising this issue.

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  4. Bridget Wetterer says:

    Great information! As a program manager of a PRB, I found your information great! One concern I have is once clients have the unit installed and all is working, they change to cable or DSL and the PRB is not hooked back up correctly. This leaves the client with a false sense of security. Thanks for the great info and I have copied to remind clients as I install units.

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  10. ZebPet says:

    Great information. I have customers asking about the panic buttons for the elderly all the time. Nice info on the power outages and the response regarding battery backup units that will take over. I might add that there should also be some type of surge protection, even on hard wired phone lines, which some battery backups do.

  11. Kay Daniels says:

    Does anyone know of a system that does not require a wired or computer phone? We have only cell phone service and I would like a system for my husband when I have to be away from the house. Thank you.

    • Bill says:

      You can check with the companies listed in my article. At least one does offer a cell-phone like service option. It is more expensive and separate from the other plans, but might work for you.

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