Personal alarm buying guide
This one little gadget could save a life in an emergency. What features do they have and which ones do you need?
Personal alarms and what to look for
Personal alarms can give extra peace of mind to the elderly, children, solo workers or people recuperating after surgery or illness – as well as their loved ones and carers. Also known as life alarms, when these small devices are triggered they send an emergency alert to pre-set mobile phone numbers or a 24-hour monitoring service. Many models also include other functions, including different options for communication, location tracking, and charging.
What is a personal alarm?
A personal alarm is a small device that helps you monitor and communicate with a person who may require attention in times of need.
Often used by nurses, parents, carers and their patients and children, they're designed to be a simple and easy-to-use communication tool for times of distress or danger.
There are two basic options for personal alarms: a pendant you wear around your neck or or a smartwatch worn on your wrist.
Both pendants and watches usually feature:
- an SOS button, which the user can press to alert carers
- GPS location, used to find the wearer
- two-way and hands-free communication
- fall detection, which alerts carers if the user has any sharp falls
- geo-fencing (electronic fence), which notifies carers if a user goes outside of a defined areas
- contact lists – used to make calls, send emergency notifications and store contact details in case of emergency
- mobile SIM card.
While watches usually provide the same features and functionality as a pendant, they can be more difficult for some people to use.
How does a personal alarm work?
A personal alarm is always on and monitors:
- the wearer's GPS position
- any increases in speed (indicating the wearer is in a car)
- sudden movements (indicating a possible fall).
The alarm has an in-built mobile SIM so it can send this information to a call centre or a list of pre-determined contacts.
What's the best personal alarm for the elderly?
The type of personal alarm you need will depend on the needs of the person in your care.
If the person in your care has:
- limited mobility – consider features such as fall detection
- Alzheimers or dementia – consider features such as automatic tracking, which can to help locate a person unable to communicate their position or condition.
What's the best personal alarm for children?
The type of personal alarm you need for your child will be influenced by whether you want to communicate with your child or track their location.
If you want to communicate with them, you may want to consider one of the personal alarm watches with a kids' focus (see our personal alarm reviews).
What's the best personal alarm for the disabled?
- The challenge in caring for a person with a disability is that there are range of different requirements. If your needs are substantial then you may want to consider a full care solution with 24/7 monitoring. The models we tested are monitored by the carer, often a family member.
Charging cradle or magnetic dock
A charging cradle is useful because:
- it makes it obvious the device needs to be plugged in
- it can sit in an obvious place in the home
- it's less fiddly than a USB cover that needs moving.
Some watches also have magnetic connections that only connect in a certain way, so you can be sure it's charging.
Fall detection sends an alert when the device falls rapidly. This might be useful if the device is with someone who is in danger of falling.
When you have responsibility for someone who wanders, you might want to be alerted when that person goes outside of their known areas.
Geo-fencing works by setting up a virtual fence. When the device crosses this virtual fence, the device sends an alert to a contact.
Geo-fencing has two settings:
- radius – creates a virtual fence in a circle
- polygon – this is a bit more flexible than the radius, as it means you can create a map that allows for some freedom (e.g. providing access to a nearby park).
GPS location is designed to track the user while they're carrying the device.
The effectiveness of GPS location can reduced by:
- tall buildings and dense developments
- being inside buildings.
In our tests we found those that allowed tracking by sending an SMS request worked well, though it's not as handy as those that allow a tracking history, or 'live' view so you can predict where someone is heading.
This alerts a contact if the device doesn't move for a specified amount of time.
Number of contacts
Look for a personal alarm that will accept more than one contact. The more contacts you have, the better – in case the first contact is away from their phone.
Reception is important for the communication and GPS to work properly. Most devices need to be in a clear, outdoor area for them to work well.
Very few of them indicate reception levels, but you can look for a personal alarm with a good reception score in our test.
If the device starts moving rapidly, say by the wearer getting into a car or train, it alerts a contact.
How much is a personal alarm?
Prices range from $140 up to almost $500, which doesn't include the price of the SIM card.
For a device that could very well save the life of a relative or friend, personal alarms are disappointingly expensive in Australia.
We checked on a large shopping website based in China and found some identical looking, and similarly featured, devices to the Live-Life, Mind Me and Safe-Life for around $50. The good news is that they may perform in a similar manner. The bad news is they have no local support and instructions (if they exist) may not be in English.
Locally-sold products will more likely have software and set-up support, which our testers put a high value on – after working with these products for a couple of years, we've found the out-of-box experience generally leaves a lot to be desired.
Are there free alternatives to personal alarms?
If you have a smartphone, you can use a number of apps that are similar to personal alarms, but they'll have some limitations.