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How to buy the best personal alarm

Our guide to the little gadget that could save a life in an emergency.

two women looking at alarm

Personal alarms can give peace of mind and a sense of security to the elderly, children, solo workers or people recuperating after surgery or illness – as well as their loved ones and carers. 

They can also be an instant, and invaluable, form of communication in the event of an emergency. In other words, personal alarms may save lives.

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 perform other functions such as communication, location tracking, and charging.

Why we don't recommend personal alarms

As an organisation that tests these products, we feel we have a duty to inform you of which products reasonably meet their claims, and which do not. However, we will no longer recommend any personal alarms.

We conduct real-world tests when assessing personal alarms, which are designed to replicate consumer usage during day-to-day life. However, experiences are subjective, and we have received a number of emails from members detailing how their products were faulty or didn't work as advertised. These complaints occurred across a number of brands and models, which we feel points to problems with the personal alarm industry as a whole.

We will continue to test, score and publish personal alarms, so you can make an informed decision if you need to purchase one for yourself or a relative. In addition to listing products that we find to perform appropriately, we will highlight models you should not buy.

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. 

Unlike smartphones, they're designed mainly to be a quick and simple communication tool for times of distress or danger.

They're often used by nurses, parents, carers and their patients and children. Patients and children can quickly and easily alert others if they require attention, typically if they're lost or injured.

Cost

Prices range from $140 up to almost $500, which may not include the price of the SIM card or optional subscription service. 

For a device that could very well save the life of a relative or friend, personal alarms are an expensive option in Australia.

Are there free alternatives?

If you have a smartphone, you can use a number of apps that are similar to personal alarms, but they'll have some limitations.

How do personal alarms work?

A personal alarm is always on and monitors:

  • the wearer's position using GPS
  • any increases in speed (indicating the wearer is in a car)
  • sudden movements followed by no movement (indicating a possible fall).

They also include an SOS button for the wearer to press and send an immediate alert to a call centre (if you have a subscription-based personal alarm) or a list of pre-determined contacts. This is powered by a built-in SIM, similar to a smartphone.

Subscription-based personal alarms

Most personal alarms are designed to alert a pre-selected contact like a smartphone. Some, however, can connect to a 24 hour call centre if you're prepared to pay a fee – typically between $20 and $40 per month.

Constant monitoring is the main advantage here:

  • There's always a chance you could miss a phone alert due to the time of day (e.g. sleep hours), poor reception, or something as simple as forgetting your phone is on silent.
  • Subscription services include the full gamut of alerts offered by the alarm, including SOS button, fall alerts, GPS monitor and two-way communication.
  • They also reach out if they notice a change in the users typical behaviour (e.g. walking in unfamiliar areas or lack of movement).
  • Call centres can quickly assess the seriousness of the situation, to determine whether relatives or emergency services need to be contacted.

Why haven't CHOICE tested subscription personal alarms?

We don't cover any 24/7 personal alarms because of the complexity involved in the testing.

Were we to test them, each manufacturer's monitoring system would need to be tested, which means they would know they were being tested by CHOICE. This could bias results, as we cannot mask contact to an emergency service, and we can't risk a monitoring service knowing that CHOICE is testing them.

Above and beyond this, even if we could mask our contact details (difficult as you need to register up front anyway), making false emergency requests is unethical. We could advise them all that we were testing them and just accept the fact that the results would be potentially biased across the board, but the project management for notifying each monitoring system of an incoming false call would be quite complex and we wouldn't want to throw out their normal business as usual circumstances (even if they were considering it, which I doubt they would).

This is why we have focused on the non-24/7 monitoring devices.

What to look for in a personal alarm

Charging cradle or magnetic dock

A charging cradle is useful as it makes it obvious that the device needs to be plugged in, it can sit in an obvious place in the home, and 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

This sends an alert when the device falls rapidly. Useful if the device is with someone who's in danger of falling.

Geo-fencing 

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

This is designed to track the user while they're carrying the device. 

However, the effectiveness of GPS location can be reduced by tall buildings, dense developments and 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.

Ping frequency

This refers to GPS monitoring, and most models fall into one of three categories:

  • Frequent alerts.
  • Occasional alerts.
  • Alerts when device leaves a geo-fenced boundary. 

A good quality alarm will let you pick one of these options. Greater ping frequency consumes battery power at a faster rate, which could render the alarm useless by the end of the day.

Non-movement alarm

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 accepts more than one contact. The more contacts you have, the better – in case the first contact is away from their phone.

Reception

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.

Speed alarm

If the device starts moving rapidly, say by the wearer getting into a car or train, it alerts a contact.

3G vs 4G – what's the difference?

Personal alarms use GPS and mobile data networks to help track the wearer's movements. Like smartphones, older personal alarms will only connect to 3G, while most new models can connect to the faster 4G network. Manufacturers often claim that 4G introduces a number of safety improvements but these claims are a bit disingenuous.

4G improves data transfer speeds and increases the amount of data that can be transferred at any given time. This means things like HD YouTube videos will load much faster. However, the combination of 3G and GPS is already capable of delivering real time updates when tracking people's movements. So the amount of data that bounces between a personal alarm and the smartphone used to track it is so small, it won't really benefit from 4G.

However, while the improved data will deliver little real world benefit to a personal alarm user, there may be an advantage in wider network support if you are in an area with a 4G tower and no 3G tower nearby. This scenario may be possible if a 4G tower has been installed in the less than 1% area of Australia without 3G network coverage.

Generally, the components in the personal alarm and the quality of the app play the most important role in the performance of the device. The manufacturer may advertise 4G connectivity, but the overall performance will still be spotty and inconsistent if the network receiver is poorly made or the app is slow and clunky.

3G network shutdown

Like 2G, 3G will soon go the way of the dodo as far as consumer mobile networks are concerned. This means that 3G enabled personal alarms will lose a number of functions. Despite this, a number of manufacturers and online retailers are still selling 3G only models.

So far:

  • Telstra will end all 3G support in June 2024
  • Vodafone has phased 3G connectivity on the 2100MHz spectrum but it still operates on the 900MHz spectrum.
  • Optus has no plans to end 3G support

Try to buy a 4G enabled personal alarm as 3G models basically have an expiration date. If that's not an option, find a unit that can connect to Optus and/or Vodafone and check the specs to make sure it supports the required spectrum. Don't buy a Telstra-only 3G model unless you have no other option as it will become pretty useless in June 2024.

Where can I buy a personal alarm?

We found that almost all personal alarms are sold online, or through small businesses specialising in aged care.

However, you may find that nursing homes, hospitals, senior community groups and so on, have partnerships with particular brands.

Government services can also help point you in the right direction:

Health insurance providers, community services and even manufacturers offer financial support and solutions as well, though this varies. 

CHOICE tip:Before you buy, it's worth getting in contact with one of the government departments mentioned above, as well as the company behind the personal alarm, to determine your options. You could end up saving a lot of money.

Buying locally vs overseas

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 $80. 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 work with local sim cards
  • 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.

Though the cost is high, we recommend buying these products locally.

Are personal alarms secure?

As the name suggests, personal alarms require a lot of personal data:

  • The account requires a number of details to activate the SIM card (though you can get around this by installing your own in some cases).
  • They need to track your movements and, in some cases, access data in your phone in order to function.

This isn't an issue in itself, but we have come across a number of personal alarms with fairly lax security.

  • If you want the supplier to set up a SIM for you, they will need details like name, address, date of birth and so on. However, some gather this by asking you to fill and return a Word document or PDF, rather than a secure online form.
  • Similarly, some companies that connect to the cloud don't specify if/how your data is encrypted. Apps did not indicate this either.
  • It's not uncommon to encounter default passwords that are identical across a number of different models and brands. This is the kind of things hackers go after.
  • One particularly bad example created an account for the personal alarm which linked to a seemingly unrelated mainland Chinese news website.

Before you buy, look into the privacy policy and any information regarding data protection. Call the company if you're still unsure and confirm that they have data protection measures in place. If they don't provide this information, do not buy their product. It's not worth the risk.

Pendant or smartwatch?

There are two basic personal alarm options:

  • a pendant you wear around your neck
  • a smartwatch worn on your wrist

Both pendants and watches usually feature:

  • a mobile SIM card
  • 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 fallen and isn't able to move
  • geo-fencing (electronic fence), which notifies carers if a user goes outside of defined areas
  • contact lists – used to make calls, send emergency notifications and store contact details in case of emergency

While watches usually provide the same features and functionality as a pendant, they can be more difficult to use.

Our test results found that many models follow the same pendant or smartwatch design. This suggests that physical components are pumped out by the same manufacturers, and sold to small retailers who are free to create their own software and apps.

These elements, rather than physical functions, tend to be the deciding factors in finding a personal alarm that suits your needs.

Pendant without screen

pendant_type_without_screen

Pendant with screen

pendant_type_with_screen

This design does not have a touchscreen.

Smartwatch

watch_type_with_touchscreen

This design has a touchscreen.

The best personal alarms depending on needs

The best personal alarm for the elderly

If the person 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

The best personal alarm for a person with a disability

The challenge in caring for a person with a disability is that there are a range of different requirements. 

If your needs are substantial then consider a full care solution with 24/7 monitoring. The models we test are monitored by the carer, often a family member.

The best personal alarm for independent people living alone

You need to consider the physical and cognitive capabilities of the user in this instance. If the person:

  • Is physically and mentally sound, then a self-activated alarm should suffice. Consider whether they would be able to activate the panic button during an emergency, even if they are injured. Look for features such as fall or lack of movement detection, and automatic GPS tracking.
  • Has cognitive or physical limitations, a paid monitoring service may be a better solution, as representatives can quickly alert emergency services if their monitoring system detects an issue. The benefit here is that the onus is not on the individual to alert anyone themselves.

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, consider a personal alarm watch with a kids' focus. These:

  • Have a child friendly interface.
  • Usually look like a smart watch (so the child doesn't need to wear a pendant).
  • Limit functions to communication (e.g. no additional apps, social media services or ability to contact people outside the set list of contacts). If anyone outside the designated contact list can call the watch, we bring this to your attention in as a bad point.
  • Allow two-way communication.
  • Are typically low cost due to the increased chance of loss or damage.

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