Personal Emergency Response Systems

April 20, 2002

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:

  • 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 income.
  • 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 [1].

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 Business Bureau.
  • Read the written agreement carefully before signing it [2].

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.