Medical alert devices: Test before you invest

Many devices only alert emergency responders to a nearby cell tower

Dispatchers at the Clackamas 911 CCOM, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)
Dispatchers at the Clackamas 911 CCOM, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)

CLACKAMAS, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s that time of year again where we’ll start seeing those ads: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Personal medical alert systems — watches, clip-ons or necklaces — are popular in their target market: seniors who want to stay mobile and independent.

But the alert itself may not tell the 911 dispatcher exactly where you are.

> Initiated call means a device has service by a carrier (like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) that provides wireless Phase 2 information about location
> Uninitiated call means a device that only looks for a cell tower

“The problems with medical alert devices is that often they act like an uninitiated cell phone, and that’s, like, it acts like a cell phone without service from the carrier, like Verizon or AT&T or Sprint or T-Mobile,” said Cheryl Bledsoe, the technical manager for Clackamas 911.

By law, she told KOIN 6 News, they have to be able to reach 911 but they do it by reaching the nearest cell tower to where the medical alert is activated.

“The location coordinates that we receive are the location coordinates for the cell tower and not necessarily the medical alert device,” she said. “It’s really important that people understand the location accuracy of an uninitiated cell phone is really often very inaccurate for us.”

Medical alert devices act like a cell phone that doesn’t have service. Pushing the button allows it to connect to 911 in what is called a Phase One coordinate — that is, it pings the cell phone tower, which could be a mile or more away from the person who needs help.

A Phase Two coordinate triangulates the spot where the emergency is.

A dispatcher at the Clackamas 911 CCOM, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)
A dispatcher at the Clackamas 911 CCOM, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)

Bledsoe said her concern is that a person who needs help may get delayed help because the responders will go to a cell tower.

“And some of these devices actually charged $50, $60 a month for service. And at that same price you may as well have an actual cell phone that’s nearby that you could call us with,” she said. “We’ll get better information off of that than we will off a device that’s charging you money but not giving us accurate information.”

Cheryl Bledsoe, the technical manager for Clackamas 911, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)
Cheryl Bledsoe, the technical manager for Clackamas 911, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)

What Clackamas County is offering

This week, Clackamas 911 CCOM posted on their Facebook page an opportunity for people to call in and test their medical alert devices to see if they are accurate.

To test in Clackamas County, call 503.655.8211 between 9 – 11 a.m.

Bledsoe said residents should call their non-emergency line first — 503.655.8211 — between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. If it’s a good time at the dispatch center, they’ll tell you to ring the medical alert device to find out how close it is to where you are.

“It’s really important before you invest money in these devices or want to have piece of mind that, really, the device is doing what it promises in their marketing materials.”

She also suggested testing it with dispatch at the store before you buy it.

Consumer Reports: What to look for in a medical alert system

“Test it right there while they’re in the shop with the folks to make them prove the claims of what they’re saying, as far as location goes.”

Often the marketing will say “it’s accurate anywhere in the United States,” Bledsoe said, “and 99 times out of 100 it’s going to be a fair distance off. So it’s important to test it before your invest.”

A cell phone communications tower in Clackamas County, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)
A cell phone communications tower in Clackamas County, November 2, 2017 (KOIN)