We've tested more than 40 personal alarms since we began reviewing these devices in 2017, and we still can't recommend a single one.
A personal alarm is worn around the neck or wrist or attached to a belt, and is designed to call or message the wearer's carer in case of an emergency (we don't test the type that contact a dedicated call centre).
These products claim to provide peace of mind for carers who want to make sure their loved ones are safe. But the unfortunate reality is that when we've tested personal alarms in real-world situations, we've found they often simply aren't able to perform the key functions carers or wearers are depending on.
An emergency device that you can't rely on in an emergency? Sounds pretty shonky to us.
Reception and geofencing failures
"We've found that if your loved one wanders onto a train or another form of public transport, the reception is sometimes so poor that the personal alarm won't work when the user tries to activate it," says CHOICE test coordinator Scott O'Keefe.
Another area of repeated failure is geofencing. This GPS-based feature is supposed to activate the alarm when the wearer goes outside of a predetermined virtual 'fence', such as an aged-care facility or a home.
"Many personal alarms in our tests fail to trigger an alarm, or they're slow in notifying the carer," says O'Keefe.
Hard to use
That these products fail to perform their key function is bad enough. But to make matters worse, they're also notoriously hard to set up and use.
Many manuals have tiny, hard-to-read type; or worse, you have to download the manual from a website. In many cases, our testers had to call support lines for help.
Now, if our tech experts who test these products regularly can't set them up without support, what hope does the average person have?
If our tech experts can't set them up without support, what hope does the average person have?
Another problem with personal alarms is their battery. They need to be charged on a regular basis, which can be an issue if the user has a cognitive impairment.
And even if the owner does remember to charge it, doing so is also not always easy. Some personal alarms have delicate charging docks that make it difficult to tell whether the device is actually properly connected and charging – a fault that should have been designed out years ago.
To top it all off, personal alarms have raised our concerns when it comes to their privacy policies and data retention.
Many companies require users to supply ID in the form of a driver's licence and/or Medicare card. While some companies claim they won't store this information, others don't specify how long they'll keep our information for, or how they'll use it.
Personal alarms are not a bad idea, but they've been poorly designed. While some providers are trying to do the right thing, we're still finding too many failures.
"We'd like to see irresponsible suppliers change their behaviour so that these products meet consumer needs and expectations about performance and ease of use," says CHOICE director of reviews and testing Matthew Steen.
"As it stands, we see carers seeking peace of mind from a product that's often just a waste of money."
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