The following editorial was published in the Des Moines Register on Aug. 1:

Des Moines has seen the number of false alarms from gadgets more than double, while consumer group raises concerns about location accuracy and call center response delays

A Des Moines Register editorial writer recently returned home from a bicycle ride to concerned neighbors. They said a fire truck and ambulance had just left her house after responding to a medical-alert device — a panic alarm worn on the wrist or neck pendant — that was geolocated to her address.

The paramedics had talked to neighbors, looked in windows, assessed the situation and decided to enter the house through an unlocked kitchen window. They were greeted by dogs, but no people.

That’s because no one was home. Interestingly, no one in the home has a medical alert device, either.

One has to appreciate the thoroughness of Des Moines firefighters. If someone was in need of medical help — perhaps on a bathroom floor or at the bottom of stairs — the diligence of our paramedics may have saved that person’s life.

But it also leaves one wondering who was seeking assistance. Did someone driving or walking by accidentally push the panic button on their device? Was a neighbor with chest pain expecting help to arrive?

And just how common are such false alarms?

“I believe they are increasing in frequency,” Des Moines Fire Marshal Jonathan Lund said.

The city’s firefighters responded to 87 false alarms from medical alert devices in 2016, accounting for 6% of the total false alarms for emergencies. In 2017, that number rose to 134 false alarms, or 10% of the total. In 2018, it increased to 213 calls, or 12% of the total.

In the first six months of 2019, firefighters responded to 139 false alarms from these devices. More accurate data collection could account for some of the increase, Lund said.

If emergency personnel can’t locate the person hailing assistance, they decide what to do on a case-by-case basis, he said. For example, cars in the driveway, water boiling on the stove or a burning candle may indicate someone is home but not answering the door.

His advice to anyone with or considering buying a medical alert device: Know how it works and who it notifies.

Though many Americans now have a cell phone within arm’s reach, more than 3 million consumers, mostly seniors, have medical alert devices, which may be set to notify a call center, a relative or 911.

But these devices, which can cost hundreds of dollars plus a monthly monitoring fee, may not be a good option. They can delay response time and waste emergency resources.

Consumers’ Checkbook, an independent, nonprofit consumer organization, partnered with Arlington County’s Emergency Communication Center to test 11 devices. Researchers hit panic buttons 290 times to see what happened.

The problems discovered were troubling.

“Some performed so terribly that we’re afraid their customers’ safety is at risk,” according to Checkbook.

At peak times, 911 call centers aim to answer the vast majority of calls within 10 to 20 seconds.

The person who answers the phone is trained to determine the caller’s location, assess the situation and even instruct callers on starting CPR and stopping bleeding.

Pushing the panic button on a medical alert device usually connects consumers to a company call center. One of the devices tested, which cost $472, took an average of one minute and 20 seconds to connect with callers.

Those seconds can mean the difference between life and death in a true medical emergency. The devices are also notorious for false alarms.

“Some of the devices we tested sent false alarms during shipment to us,” wrote Checkbook. “Once they arrived, even more false alarms. On a few occasions our receptionist looked up to find paramedics at our office front door, ready with gurney, oxygen, defibrillator, the works.”

What about location accuracy?

That isn’t so great either.

Checkbook’s testing found medical alert companies often had trouble determining where calls were coming from. They couldn’t locate people, even within a reasonable margin of error, which concurs with reports from 911 managers. When researchers called for help from Arlington, one device “found” them in China.

Paramedics cannot help someone who cannot be found. And problems with the devices, or consumers who don’t know how to use them, could land paramedics in a house where the owner is away on a bike ride.

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