PERS on the Move
With improving GPS and cellular technology, personal emergency response systems are breaking boundaries in what’s possible for personal protection and expanding the market to serve a growing segment of the population.
Personal emergency response systems (PERS) have been around for years, helping seniors get emergency assistance with the push of a button. Now, with evolving technology in cellular communication and GPS-based location services, PERS has stepped out of the home, redefining the role of PERS while bringing security and other benefits to a wider range of people.
Five years ago, mobile PERS (MPERS) did not exist, but today the market is growing rapidly. Just a year ago, Linear providers reported that MPERS was a very small part of their business, says Chuck Stevens, vice president, health and wellness specialty business unit, for Carlsbad, Calif.-based Linear. He adds, “Today, it is 10 to 15 percent of their total business. The market has about doubled since last year.”
Indeed, opportunities in this arena have captured the attention of the industry. At their spring meeting in March, the Medical Alert Monitoring Association (MAMA) featured a panel to discuss MPERS products. And they will continue to explore the topic with a discussion of MPERS monitoring at their fall conference, says Christopher Baskin, MAMA board member and CEO of American Two-Way, located in North Hollywood, Calif.
Chris Otto, vice president of product development for Boca Raton, Fla.–based MobileHelp, says that the MPERS category is maturing. While only a few companies have MPERS products currently on the market, several more are in the process of developing them, including Linear and Louisville, Ky.-based LogicMark. Both have products scheduled to be released later this year.
Stevens says that some of the challenges faced in product development involve extending battery life and designing a product that provides the desired functionality at a minimum size and weight — two different, often competing, goals. MPERS products currently on the market tend to fall into one of two categories: they’re either device-based products similar to traditional PERS equipment or app-based solutions for cell phones. The preferred MPERS solution depends largely on the user’s needs and preferences, with younger users, teens, and college-age kids favoring app-based solutions, says Morgan Hertel, vice president of operations for Rapid Response Monitoring in Syracuse, N.Y.
MPERS devices designed to be like traditional PERS equipment focus on ease of use. From single-button activation to inductive battery chargers, “The main thing is simplicity,” says Baskin. The key element in developing successful MPERS systems is meeting the expectations of the market, says Shawn Welsh, vice president of marketing and business development for Telular, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. “Keep all expectations of the platform consistent,” he advises.
Developing MPERS devices to look and act like traditional PERS still involves additional technical and communication challenges. “Mobility is different than classic PERS,” says Otto, “It’s not just a button press; it must provide location data as well. GPS is a different beast.” This requires the development of different technical solutions, as well as new training and protocols for operators at the central station. Because cellular data and cellular voice are transmitted via different routes, MPERS monitoring stations must resolve the issue of binding the call, that is ensuring the GPS location information is correctly matched with voice for each call, says Otto.
Mobility poses other technical challenges. Unlike traditional PERS systems, in which the system and user are always in the same location, served by the same public safety answering point (PSAP), MPERS users travel through areas covered by different PSAPs, so the monitoring center must have an automated process to identify and contact the PSAP serving the area from which the MPERS signal is activated. The alarm response protocol for an MPERS call is different as well. Because MPERS coverage is not limited to the home, the monitoring center needs to collect additional information to provide help, says Baskin of American Two-Way, which provides monitoring and offers four different MPERS products through its dealers. Having a physical description of the user and the vehicle he or she drives, a license plate number, and known activity patterns, as well as medications and a health history on file can help the operator to respond more effectively when the MPERS signal is received.
With the ability to take personal security beyond the home, MPERS opens up new possibilities for users. While not quite ready for a traditional PERS system, younger, more active seniors who have certain medical conditions may want MPERS protection in case of an emergency. Most MPERS solutions allow users to specify who will be contacted, either emergency services or a designated contact person. Some systems include access to an Internet portal where a relative or other contact person can log on to find out where the user is located. Some MPERS devices or apps allow for “breadcrumbing” in which the user’s movement is tracked. This feature allows relatives to locate a missing MPERS user even if the device has not been activated.
Breadcrumbing can be used to identify normal activity patterns, as well as deviations that could indicate the user is experiencing uncharacteristic behavior changes. Industry analyst Laurie Orlov of Aging in Place Technology Watch, notes the emergence of new options in the market to track user activity patterns. “The trend that points to is tracking patterns and using them to identify decline, change in gait, and other motion type behavior that changes over time.”
Geofencing options allow users or caregivers to define a specific geographic boundary. When the user leaves the predefined geofence, the contact person or caregiver receives an alert. Geofencing can be especially useful for monitoring individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
As the technology improves, fall detection is becoming an increasingly common feature for traditional PERS devices, activating an alarm signal even if the user is unable to press the button due to loss of consciousness or injury. MPERS manufacturers are following suit, with MobileHelp launching its myHalo Auto Fall Detection Pendant with GPS capability in the second quarter of this year.
While two-way voice has become standard for both PERS and MPERS devices, MPERS service providers are looking for new ways to utilize that feature. Orlov sees this as an opportunity for monitoring centers to optimize the use of their sometimes-idle assets by offering additional services, such as providing directions and other assistance or offering concierge services to enhance lifestyle as well as safety.
The market for MPERS is expanding not only as baby boomers age into the senior demographic, but also because the benefits of MPERS attract a wider audience. For younger, active seniors, MPERS is a logical choice, says Howard Avin, vice president sales and marketing, for NationWide Digital Monitoring, located in Long Island, New York: “I’m active. I’m a senior. It makes sense — I want it. That’s the marketplace.”
By offering MPERS solutions, dealers can extend the lifespan of PERS subscriber accounts well beyond the current average of about 24 to 30 months, as younger, more active seniors adopt MPERS services and use them longer. Stevens explains that if dealers can figure out a way to offer the service at the right price, people will be willing to spend the money for a system that covers them everywhere: “I really believe that if it is properly marketed and distributed, you could see life expectancy of accounts double.”
MPERS takes personal protection beyond safety for seniors. The devices can be used by parents to monitor their children. Teens, college students, and young adults who may be out alone at night, or employees working alone in hazardous areas can use MPERS to get help in an emergency. MPERS systems, especially those that offer speed detection, can be used commercially to provide fleet monitoring, allowing employers to track their sales or delivery personnel.
As manufacturers entering the market discover how to harness the potential of new technology, MPERS will continue to be a dynamically changing industry. “PERS today isn’t going to look anything like it will look in a few years,” says Stevens. As MPERS evolves, it is likely to become a bridge to more home health services and monitoring. “Ultimately, we’re talking about integration with the health and wellness industry,” Orlov says.
“Health care in general is a really broad market people are trying to participate in. It goes beyond PERS,” says Kevin O’Connor, president of LogicMark in Louisville, Ky. “I see it continue to evolve,” he adds, noting that in the future MPERS will include fall detection, data collection, movement detection, and more diagnostic capabilities that push into the area of telehealth.
A patch-type device or sensor with a Bluetooth connection to the MPERS device can collect readings on specific health indicators, such as blood pressure, respiration and pulse oxygen levels, which can be sent to heath care providers or trigger alerts when certain thresholds are exceeded. Hertel indicates that some large health care organizations are currently researching these options, and he anticipates that soon telematics will become the norm rather than the exception.
Avin says NationWide Digital Monitoring is actively looking into new MPERS products and technologies that it would support. “Security alarm dealers are talking with customers all day long about securing their homes against fire, burglary, and carbon monoxide, but they’re not talking about security outside the home,” says Avin, noting that is where the opportunity lies for dealers in offering MPERS.
While the technology in MPERS may be new, security professionals will find that the business model is something with which they are already familiar. Ultimately, MPERS comes down to providing a standard, fee-based service with options to upgrade.
“It’s really about RMR. Fall detection is a nice enhancement to the [dealer’s] portfolio. It’s an easy way to increase revenue for each subscriber,” says Otto. “The integration of mobility and fall detection will become more ubiquitous as we go forward,” he explains, adding that in four out of five falls, the senior is unable to press a button to get help.
While the full potential for MPERS solutions will not be known for some time, the opportunity for security professionals to succeed in this market is here now. “They need to get in the game and get a seat at the table,” advises Hertel. In doing so, they can find their niche and take part in shaping the industry as it develops.
“It’s not what’s happening today, but tomorrow. These manufacturers will soon be developing products that will protect and save lives. And that’s a great thing,” says Avin.
Cellular In-home Solutions
Even with all the exciting new options MPERS has to offer, for some users — older, frailer individuals who leave home infrequently — traditional PERS systems are more than adequate to meet their needs. However, as robust as traditional PERS systems may be, they are not immune to changing technology. Similar to what the security alarm industry has experienced with the loss of landline penetration, traditional PERS providers are faced with a challenge in installing new systems or continuing service to existing users as more customers trade their traditional plain old telephone service (POTS) for cellular phones. Shawn Welsh, vice president of marketing and business development for Atlanta, Ga.-based Telular, estimates that about 15 percent of their leads come from homes or businesses without landlines.
Cellular in-home solutions provide a way for dealers to meet the needs of those customers as well as providing an option for customers who might drop their landlines in the future. These devices are designed to be easy to install and allow existing systems to operate via cellular connections rather than landlines. In developing their cellular in-home solution the Telguard TG-P, Telular focused on meeting expectations of the market. “One of the big things for this platform is that it will work with any central station without any special hardware or programming,” Welsh says. Linear’s new UMTS 3G Cellular module for its PERS-4200 system will become available later this year, with an estimated release date in the fourth quarter.
Instead of a separate cellular module for the existing system, MobileHelp will be releasing its new Cellular Base Station in the second quarter of 2013, as a cellular alternative to its current landline-dependent base stations. The new base station will be compatible with all of MobileHelp’s pendant and mobile devices.
For more information about trends in the MPERS space from industry analyst Laurie Orlov of Aging in Place Technology Watch, as well as additional SDM coverage of PERS, monitoring, and related topics, visit www.SDMmag.com/MPERS-trends.