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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 are primarily advertised that can provide straightforward, life-saving emergency communication for the elderly when they have an accident. However, these devices which are also known as life, or safety, alarms, can also help protect children, solo workers, citizens living independently with a disability and even people recuperating after surgery or illness.

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 location tracking, automated location updates and others even let you install additional entertainment apps.

But despite the advertising, some test results and feedback from our members shows that personal alarms may not be as safe as they claim. While we still test personal alarms and publish scores, we won't give any a CHOICE recommendation.

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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 alarm reviews 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'll highlight the models you shouldn't buy.

Responsible supplier certification

Products that connect to mobile networks must be compliant with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) requirements for suppliers. This includes personal alarms. To be compliant, the seller or their agent must be registered as a responsible supplier in the National Equipment Registration System (NERS) database. Without this registration, there's no way to confirm that the seller's products are safe. 

Our test lists which suppliers provided this registration to us, or failing that, whether we could find them in the NERS database. If they don't provide proof, or if we can't find it in the NERS database, then the personal alarm scores zero as we can't garuntee that it's safe to use.

How do personal alarms work?

A personal alarm is a small device that helps you monitor and communicate with a person who may require attention in times of need. It uses a SIM card and GPS to track your location and make calls or send texts, just like a smartphone. But unlike smartphones, they're designed mainly to be a quick and simple communication tool for times of distress or danger.

A personal alarm is always on and monitors three key things - 1) the wearer's position using GPS 2) any increases in speed (indicating the wearer is in a car or on public transport) and 3) sudden movements followed by no movement (indicating a possible fall). You can program the personal alarm to regularly update you with the wearers coordinates via text, or alert you if it detects an incident such as a fall, or if the wearer leaves a pre-determined area near their home.

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 contacts that you can program into the device. This SOS button can also send a text message.

Personal alarms are 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. Workers also use them on construction sites, especially if they're alone in a remote or confined location.

What are the types of personal alarms?

There are two basic personal alarm options; a pendant you wear around your neck and a smartwatch worn on your wrist.

Both pendants and watches usually have all of the communication, emergency response and tracking features mentioned above, but watches can be a bit more difficult to use due to the touch screen. At the same time however, they can offer additional features you'd find in a smartwatch, such as support for third-party apps.

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

Basic pendant models have a large SOS button that's easy to press during an emergency, and individual call buttons on the side. Though simple, models like this don't have a screen to provide feedback on things like remaining battery charge, who you're calling, mobile signal strength and so on.

pendant_type_without_screen

Pendant models without a screen are the easiest to use, but lack some features.

Pendant with screen

These are very similar to the basic pendant models but the screen will provide some basic status updates. But it can add some extra weight (usually 10 - 20 grams) and may reduce battery life.

pendant_type_with_screen

This design does not have a touchscreen.

Smartwatch design

These look and feel like a smartwatch, which is a bit more inconspicuous than a pendant hanging around your neck. They use a touchscreen interface and may also have a small SOS button on the side. You can often customise the appearance with a variety of watch faces, and even install additional apps such as Spotify on some models. Settings, contact menus and so on are also much more detailed.

However, they can be hard to use if you have limited dexterity, particularly in the event of an emergency like a fall. It's much easier to press a big SOS button than scroll through a list of contacts for example. Also the screen is typically quite small and it can be hard to read the text and tap the correct icon.

watch_type_with_touchscreen

This design has a touchscreen.

How much do personal alarms 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.

Where to buy personal alarms

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 and senior community groups have partnerships with particular brands.

We also 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 personal alarms 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 and may not be in English. Locally-sold products are more likely to have software and set-up support, which our testers put a high value on. After working with these products for a few 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.

How to get a personal alarm for free

The Commonwealth Home Support program provides government support for individuals that need access to services and financial assistance, required for independent living as they age. Some personal alarms are available for free, or at a reduced rate, through this program.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) can also provide funding and Veterans can also receive support through their own government program. Community services and even manufacturers may offer financial support and solutions as well, though this varies and tends to exist on a case by case basis. Health insurance providers may also offer support or reimbursements of some kind so it's worth asking, but this isn't standard practice.

Do I need a personal alarm subscription?

Most personal alarms are designed to alert a pre-selected contact. 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. 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 can solve this problem and others.

They offer constant monitoring for a variety of circumstances, such as 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 user's typical behaviour (e.g. walking in unfamiliar areas or lack of movement). When an alert comes in, call centres will quickly assess the seriousness of the situation to determine whether relatives or emergency services need to be contacted.

Should I buy a 3G or 4G personal alarm?

You can find plenty of 3G or 4G personal alarms on the market, with each one supposedly safer than the other depending on who you ask. Some manufacturers claim that they're sticking with 3G has it has the broadest network coverage and is older and therefore "reliable." Those selling 4G models argue that the increased bandwidth makes their products safer. 4G models can also roll onto a 3G network if required.

The thing is, 3G and 4G coverage is dependent on where telcos put transmitters. Neither one is stronger or has a clearer signal in and of itself, the only difference is data transfer speeds. 4G has higher 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.

But this doesn't make much of a difference when it comes to personal alarms. 3G can already handle the small amount of data required to provide live GPS updates. 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.

So in terms of performance, the difference is negligible. In reality, future support 3G is much more important as the network is scheduled to shutdown, which could render the devices useless.

3G network shutdown

Like 2G, 3G networks will soon be shutdown. This means that 3G-enabled personal alarms will lose a number of functions. Despite this, a number of manufacturers and online retailers continue to make and sell 3G-only models.

So far Telstra has phased out 3G connectivity on the 2100MHz spectrum, but it still operates on 850MHz. The company will end all 3G support in June 2024. Vodafone has phased out 3G connectivity on the 2100MHz spectrum but it still operates on the 900MHz spectrum. Optus has no plans to end 3G support.

As Telstra has set a deadline, the other telcos are likely to follow suit and shut off their networks in mid-2024. So, what does this mean for 3G-only personal alarms?

Do 3G personal alarms still work?

The answer is yes, for now. However we can't guarantee that they'll keep working once the 3G networks have been turned off. Even though mobile data is mainly used to improve GPS  accuracy, the shutdown will likely affect the device's ability to make calls and texts as well.

2G phones stopped working altogether when that network ceased operation, and 3G devices are likely to be the same. This means that personal alarm retailers are selling brand new, expensive devices with an expiration date.

It's best to buy a 4G-enabled device, otherwise you'll have to shell out a few hundred dollars to replace your 3G one in a few years' time. The thing is, unlike new phones which typically offer a bunch of updates with each new model, personal alarms don't undergo drastic changes. That said, there's no need to rush out and upgrade to a 4G unit if you already own a 3G one. 

Important safety features to look for

Battery life

A longer battery life is useful if you forget to charge it up overnight. Ideally, a personal alarm should have an active (in-use) battery life of 24 hours, or enough to get you through a day at the very least.

Charging cradle or magnetic dock

Putting your personal alarm in a charging cradle is much easier than fiddling with a cable, especially if you have limited dexterity. That said, some models (including pendants and watches) have magnetic connectors that make it easier to plug the cable in.

Fall detection

This sends an alert when the device falls rapidly. This is useful if the device is with someone with a fall risk.

Responsible supplier certification

Products that connect to mobile networks must be compliant with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) requirements for suppliers. This includes personal alarms. To be compliant, the seller or their agent must be registered as a responsible supplier in the National Equipment Registration System (NERS) database. Without this registration, there's no way to confirm that the seller's products are safe. Our test lists which suppliers provided this registration to us, or failing that, whether we could find them in the NERS database.

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, which creates a virtual fence in a circle and polygon, which 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. Some let you track movement in an app while others will provide GPS coordinates via text. You can set the frequency of these alerts, usually in five or ten minute blocks (ping frequency).

Non-movement alarm

This alerts a contact if the device doesn't detect movement 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. The alarm will automatically cycle through them until someone answers.

Ping frequency

This refers to GPS monitoring, and most models fall into one of three categories. 1) frequent alerts 2) occasional alerts 3) 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.

Speed alarm

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

Water and dust resistance

An ingress protection (aka IP) rating is the best way to identify whether a personal alarm is dust and water resistant. The first digit applies to particulate protection (dirt, dust etc) and the second refers to moisture protection.

Generally speaking, higher numbers equal a greater level of protection. However, this doesn't always apply to moisture protection. Some ratings refer to directed water such as spray, rain or jets, while others protect against submersion. Also, a product's IP rating is measured in pure water, so the introduction of other things such as soap, detergent or mud could affect IP performance, in theory.

We suggest looking for a personal alarm with a rating of IP66 or IP67. IP66 claims to provide complete protection against dust etc and powerful water jets. IP67 is the same for dust, but protects against submersion in water for up to 30 minutes, at a depth of up to one metre. While an IP67 model may be fine in the shower the submersion test can't guarantee this.

Some products use generic terms like "splash proof" or "shower proof" but these are relatively meaningless without an IP rating. A few manufacturers also sell protective casing or bags if you want an extra level of water and dust resistance.

Do personal alarms protect your privacy?

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 your name, address and date of birth. However, some gather this by asking you to fill in 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 or how your data is encrypted. Apps often lack this information as well. It's not uncommon to encounter default passwords that are identical across a number of different models and brands. This is the kind of thing hackers go after. We found one particularly bad example during a recent test. It 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.

What's the best personal alarm for the elderly?

This depends on a number of physical and mental health factors, so please understand that our advice is a broad starting point. It's best to consult with your, or the wearers, GP before buying.

If the wearer is in a good physical and mental state, but wants a personal alarm for peace of mind in the event of an emergency, then a pendant or touch screen watch will be fine. A model with GPS is also worth looking into if the wearer is often out and about by themselves, as this will allow you to pinpoint their location if something happens. Just understand that a touch screen watch can take time to learn, particularly if the wearer hasn't used a smartwatch before, or spent a lot of time with a smartphone.

If the wearer has limited dexterity due to conditions such as arthritis, or they have vision impairment, go for a pendant with a large SOS button. Small touch screens can be hard to see and navigate which could be life threatening in an emergency.

Those with limited mobility, movement difficulties or fall risks (which includes seizures) should consider models with good quality fall detection. This can activate an alarm if they're unable to do it themselves or they lose consciousness. Some models will also send an alert if they don't detect movement for a predefined period of time.

Mental health and memory-related symptoms can present other complications, particularly if the wearer doesn't have physical limitations. In this case, it's best to talk to them about places they regularly go (the shops, cafes etc) and determine regular walking routes. Then, you can suggest a personal alarm that will provide alerts if they leave these areas.

Geo-fencing, automatic tracking and speed tracking can be very useful in these circumstances. They allow the wearer to retain independence while providing a safety net should something happen and they're unable to communicate. In terms of whether a pendant or watch is better, this is really up to the individual and whether they have the capacity to understand and recall the steps required to use a smartwatch style device.

In all cases, look for a model that is advertised as "water resistant", "waterproof"  or better yet, has an IP rating of IP67. This will protect it from all dust and liquid elements someone is likely to encounter day to day, and is also suitable for use in the shower. IP67 should also keep it safe if the wearer drops the pendant in shallow water such as a puddle, a sink or the toilet.

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.

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

These alarms have a child friendly interface and usually look like a smart watch (so the child doesn't need to wear a pendant). They 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 as a bad point in our reviews. They allow two-way communication and they're typically low cost due to the increased chance of loss or damage.