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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.

Avoiding Problems

The National Consumer Law Center has noted the following problems:

A local social agency might be the best source of referral to prospective vendors. The Federal Trade Commission recommends the following precautions:

For Additional Information

  1. Helping older Americans avoid problems with personal emergency response systems. National Consumer Law Center Web site, accessed April 2002.
  2. Personal emergency response systems. Federal Trade Commission, March 2001.

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This article was posted on April 20, 2002.