How to buy the best personal alarm
Our guide to the little gadget that could save a life in an emergency.
Personal alarms and what to look for
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.
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.
How much does a personal alarm 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.
Note, we haven't tested these services yet, and can't comment on their effectiveness.
What are the different types of personal alarms?
There are two basic 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.
What's the best personal alarm?
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.
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 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.
They can be a good alternative to a smartphone, particularly for younger kids.
What should I 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.
This sends an alert when the device falls rapidly. Useful if the device is with someone who's 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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- Veterans can also receive support through their own government program.
Health insurance providers, community services and even manufacturers offer financial support and solutions as well, though this varies.
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 wind up saving a lot of money.
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.
How effective are personal alarms?
One key issue beyond the quality of the alarm is usage, and the idea that they're a perfect solution.
A 2017 study in Home Health Care Services Quarterly, found that just because people have a personal alarm, doesn't mean they'll use it.
Results showed that:
- People used a telephone instead of their personal alarm, 26.5% of the time.
- 32% didn't wear their alarm while showering.
- 22% didn't wear their alarm while sleeping.
- One wearer forgot she was wearing the alarm.
- One user would not use the alarm after a fall, until he was able to get up by himself.
- Another didn't believe it would work, and crawled to a phone instead.
Why some people won't use a personal alarm
You can't treat a personal alarm as an all-encompassing solution. Granted, users felt safer, which improved quality of life, but that didn't always translate to results in the event of an emergency.
This is because personal alarms don't factor in some key traits:
- Facing the realities of ageing No one wants to be told that they need to be looked after. Pride and humiliation can be key (and understandable) reasons as to why someone won't use a personal alarm.
- Habitual behaviour All humans are creatures of habit. It can be easy to forget a new element of the daily routine such as charging or putting on a personal alarm.
- Distrust or suspicion Similar to habitual behaviour. As the study showed, people may be reluctant to try a different solution such as a personal alarm, when something they're familiar with such as a phone, works just fine in their mind.
- Cognitive issues Such as short-term memory loss.
- Introduce the alarm earlier in life, before they may need it. That way, they can ease into the idea, add it to their daily routine, and come to understand the technology over time.
- Show them how to use it on more than one occasion, then ask them to repeat the process for you.
- Keep an eye on GPS monitoring to make sure they're using the device, and remind them to if you feel it's necessary.
The fact is, personal alarms are intertwined with the fairly sensitive, and emotional aspects of ageing. Proper conversation is a must.