This morning I read about a woman in Wisconsin who died in a fire.
She had a medical alert system, but it was one of the ones that uses a base station speakerphone instead of a talk through the pendant system.
She pressed the button, but the emergency dispatch office was unable to understand her well and instead of dispatching fire trucks, they called her local 911 office to request an ambulance be sent to her house.
What went wrong
I want to be clear that the company did the best they could with the equipment and information they had. And I also want to note that in this particular situation, it seems to have been too late anyway. At the time the call came in to the dispatch center in the woman’s town, the dispatchers were receiving the call notifying them of a fire in a building. By the time they arrived it was too late. So even if the medical alert call center knew a fire was happening and had called the local dispatch office with that information, it would have been too late.
But that doesn’t make it less instructive to think about how different medical alert systems work, and the situations in which they don’t work very well.
As a first point, the system worked mostly as designed. In a confusing emergency situation, the woman was able to activate her medical alarm system. This means she was wearing or had close access to the medical alert button that she wore, probably on her wrist. And it means that the button properly contacted the base station which properly dialed the phone which connected with the dispatcher on the other end who knew who she was an her age and probably knew many of her medical conditions, because these had been put in her private record.
So far so good. But the nature of the medical alert systems commonly sold by the company in question is that they are base station medical alarms. The only way to communicate with the monitoring center is through the speakerphone in the base station. The speakerphone has a powerful speaker and it has a powerful microphone. But that doesn’t mean that the person at the monitoring center will actually be able to hear you.
According to the article:
“I believe (the medical alert service) spoke to someone and could hear an alarm sounding,” said Paul Logan, manager of the county’s communications center.”
And later in the article:
“The Lifeline person explained to 911: “We got a signal. … I could hear her in the background, but couldn’t make out what she was saying and there was a loud alarm going off in her home.””
When speakerphone medical alerts don’t work
Speakerphone medical alerts work pretty well most of the time. But imagine the amount of noise in this woman’s apartment from the alarm system going off. (From what I understand, this fire alarm system was more like the really loud ones you would experience in a dormitory or public building, as opposed to the little beeping once that we all have our houses.) Imagine how hard it would be to hear your answering machine from across the room or a different room in the house with the loud racket of one of these large systems. As the medical alert operator said, he could hear her, but couldn’t make out what she was saying.
This is an example of a situation in which a speaker phone medical alert loses its effectiveness. The woman would have had better luck if she had used a system like the MediPendant, which allows you to talk and listen right to the pendant that you’re wearing.
I want to repeat that in this situation it doesn’t seem that her choice of medical alert actually made a difference as to whether she lived or died. But it easily could have, if she had discovered the fire earlier and she had been able to make a call with enough time for emergency responders to get there before her apartment was engulfed.
What to do if you have a speakerphone medical alert
For individuals with standard medical alerts, it would probably be worthwhile to think about the best way to communicate with the emergency responder at the monitoring center in case of a fire rather than a standard accident or fall. Run through in your mind what will be happening in your house if you wake up to your fire alarms going off. Think about the amount of noise, think about where you are relative to the medical base station, whether there are doors in the way, and what other barriers to communication there might be. You might want to talk to the customer support staff at your medical alert monitoring company to ask them for their suggestions. As an untrained person, my instinct would be to simply yell “fire!” as many times as possible hoping that one of them would be heard by the monitoring person. It could also be helpful to ask your company if they have a base station extender that you could install. For example if your regular base station is in the living room where you spend most of your time during the day but it would be hard to communicate with it from the bedroom. Not all companies sell base station extenders, but it’s worth calling yours and asking.