YARMOUTH, Maine—The users of personal emergency response systems (PERS) are getting younger. They are generally technologically savvy. The technology is getting more advanced. And so monitoring stations, manufacturers and dealers have reasons to believe the golden age of PERS market growth has begun.
Except, of course, free markets are ultimately run by people, not data. And people complicate things.
The PERS market has the type of demographics that grab the attention of venture capitalists, “and they can overcomplicate things,” according to Bryan Stapp, president of Medical Care Alert, a dealer of PERS based in Northville, Mich.
“The devices need to be simple,” said Stapp. “In an emergency situation, you want things simple. You don’t want to think about it. It’s got to be intuitive.”
Brock Winzeler, general manager of Freeus, based in Ogden, Utah, echoed one concern voiced by other security industry experts. New technology that enhances user mobility and fall detection—as well as other innovations—run the risk of compromising a basic, fundamental truth about people in trouble.
“At the end of the day, the most important feature is a button you can press to have a live person you can communicate with,” Winzeler said.
However, market demands reflect the changing nature of the targeted end users. Not everyone agrees that the baby boom generation values simplicity above all else when they are in vulnerable situations. They also value mobility and the freedom to pursue an active lifestyle. PERS manufacturers and monitoring companies are ready, willing and able to accommodate them.
Security experts do agree that the average age of a PERS user has dropped significantly over the past several years—from the late 70s- to late 80s range, down to the mid-60s to early 70s.
Numera, a Seattle-based division of Nortek Security and Control, is very much into tracking its customers [in terms of step counts as well as location] and wellness, according to Tim Smokoff, who is Numera’s VP of health and wellness.
PERS is part of a “pro-active management system,” Smokoff said. “More people are perceiving it as a benefit for wellness and social engagement.”
Troy Iverson, former SSN “20 under 40” honoree and VP of sales at AvantGuard Monitoring Centers, based in Ogden, Utah, stressed the value of PERS features beyond the emergency button-and-response.
“Realistically, the baby boomers are embracing technology,” and that’s good news for PERS manufacturers, dealers and monitoring stations, Iverson said. “Mobile PERS are getting smaller. They’re getting more stylish. Users don’t feel self-conscious. You can’t recognize it [as a PERS device]. It helps them feel freer, safer and more peaceful.
“At the end of the day, you press a button to get help. The bells and whistles are more for your loved ones, caretakers and friends [to know what’s going on].
“With mobile PERS, you have more active seniors in the market,” Iverson said. “We can anticipate customers being customers longer. … It’s exciting for central stations, it’s exciting for dealers.”
In addition to PERS devices getting smaller, the integration of a personalized response system into a smart-home network “is really exciting,” Iverson said.
Improvements and innovations arrive side-by-side with challenges and hiccups that make progress appear at times like two steps forward, one step backward. Home telephone landlines still dot the landscape where PERS make market penetration. Not all landlines operate the same way. Not all customers or potential customers understand what their mobile phones can and cannot do. That makes it difficult for the security industry to set uniform standards.
“It is an industry problem,” said Yaniv Amir, president of EssenceUSA, a global producer of PERS and other “connected living” security products and services, based in Hoboken, N.J.
“The landlines are changing,” said Amir. “They’re not changing as fast as people thought they would change, but they are changing.”
Essence puts its resources into “passive monitoring,” devices that activate a notification if your physical routine is out of the norm, based on data collected over time. The company is also big on voice-activation systems. “If you fall down and you don’t wear your device, you are still able to talk to it,” Amir said.
Amir acknowledged that all players in the PERS market should be wary of making the end-user application too complicated, but he added, “Technology can help you if it’s implemented properly. There are ways to manage the steps,” such as a default option that is easy to remember.
Of course, the end user can always undermine the best systems and service created for him or her.
“Sometimes the users don’t wear the products at all,” Amir said. “The statistics show … a vast majority don’t wear the devices” at least some of the time. He also said women are far more likely to wear a PERS device than men.
Bryan Stapp of Medical Care Alert said the variables in human nature and technology integration make relationships between central stations and manufacturers a matter of utmost importance. Central stations, Stapp said, “are an extension of us,” meaning the dealers and providers of health alerts. The two parties communicate constantly about “normal, day-to-day problems … like when the end user changes phone lines and doesn’t tell us, or one of the emergency contacts is out of date.”
“Sometimes the end user feels as though the call was not handled properly,” Stapp said. “They’ll say [the dispatcher] was short with us. In reality, the dispatcher may have been short and efficient, but not warm and fuzzy.”
There are as many as 200 central monitoring stations across the country that PERS dealers and service providers can choose to do business with, Stapp said. “We want to be really certain our central stations share our thoughts about technology, business and continuity,” he said.
Toward that end, he said, MCA talks about 5-A compliance, meaning a central station’s response to a PERS call must happen effectively at least 99.999 percent of the time. “Ninety-seven percent is not acceptable,” Stapp said.
Improvements in GPS connections and auto-detection technology create opportunities for more personal safety—and the potential for snags in the delivery of help.
“A lot goes into looking into the difference between a drop and a fall,” Stapp said. “If your sensor gives a false detection, [the end user] is going to stop using it.”
GPS-armed mobile PERS “does create some issues in multi-tenant buildings,” said Smokoff, noting there are often limits to pinpointing the exact location in those structures.
All agree, however, that the PERS market is growing, and more of the users are in motion.
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