A dealer’s guide to PERS

“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” That was the catchphrase of a famous commercial from medical alarm company LifeCall in the late 1980s and remains the image that most people conjure up when they think of Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS).

“When people use the term PERS, they’re generally speaking of a medical alert device whereby a customer wears a button or pendant, and in the case of an emergency, they would press the button and it would activate a transmission to a central monitoring station,” said Wayne Wahrsager, CEO of Nationwide Digital Monitoring and a veteran of the PERS business for over 15 years.

The truth, however, is that there is much more involved with PERS monitoring than simply having a central station operator who sits around and waits for an elderly customer to have an accident. PERS monitoring involves in-depth training for operators and the utilization of various technologies to deliver an appropriate response depending upon the situation.

Though the PERS market is healthy, Wahrsager said that many alarm dealers are afraid to enter it because they either don’t understand the nuances of the business or they are not insured for it.

“There is a tremendous sense of inquisitiveness (about PERS) on behalf of the alarm industry because traditional alarm sales for the most part are down in this economy. The Baby Boomers are aging out and people are living much longer,” he said. “And with the cost of home healthcare, assisted living and nursing homes, more and more people are staying home or living with a loved one. That loved one is generally away from home for most of the day because they are working… and this is a natural adjunct to protecting them. The button serves many purposes; it’s there to give them a sense of peace of mind that even though their relative may live in another state, they can be in contact with them. They don’t have to dial a phone; all they have to do is push a button.”

Equipment and Operator Training

For those dealers that think PERS looks like the source of a good RMR stream during these lean economic times, Wahrsager says that there are several factors that they need to take into consideration.

According to Wahrsager, unlike a traditional residential alarm system in which the customer buys the necessary equipment up front, a PERS dealer typically provides the customer with the medical alert device, which is usually a wireless button worn either around the neck or on the arm, as well as a receiver box which contains a digital transmitter with two-way voice communication box. Among the most prominent medical alert devices or “panic buttons” as they are sometimes referred to on the market are manufactured by Visonic and Linear, Wahrsager added. Cheaper devices from overseas manufacturers are also available.

Another consideration for dealers thinking about getting into PERS is how it differs from traditional “burg and fire” monitoring.

“Traditional burglar and fire monitoring is more reactive to the electronics of the system, whether it’s a burglar alarm or fire alarm, you’re waiting for a sensor of some type to go off, be it a door contact or a motion sensor,” he said. “[With PERS monitoring] the sensing device is the subscriber themselves. The best similarity is to a hold-up button or panic button [for a traditional alarm system]; PERS is an extension of a panic button.”

Though some alarm systems are capable of integrating with a PERS unit, most of them operate separate from a residential alarm system.

“Most often, the traditional PERS monitoring system is generally a separate unit from a burglar alarm system. It is not an adjunct to a burglar alarm system,” he said. “It stands alone, it stands by itself, it is more user friendly and has a different set of controls to it.”

PERS signals are also processed somewhat differently in comparison with a burglar or fire alarm system. When the customer presses the button on their worn device or the transmitter, a digital signal is sent to the central station over phone lines that are specifically set aside for PERS monitoring. The signal then goes through the station’s automation equipment and decodes it in a matter of seconds, at which point the transmitter turns into a two-way voice receiver and the operator, who has all of the customer’s information in front of him, can then communicate with the victim.

Wahrsager said that just because a customer triggers an alarm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an emergency situation. Sometimes a customer will trigger the device to summon help from a neighbor or family member because they don’t feel well or they can’t find medicine. It’s also paramount for a PERS operator to have patience in dealing with a customer because often times a person that lives alone may use their system just for purpose of just being able to communicate with another human being. It’s a part of the business to which Wahrsager says operators must be sensitive.

“A lot of people use [a PERS system] for the sake of having someone to talk to once a day. They’ll hit the button under the pretext of testing the unit or that it was a false alarm, but they’re really looking for someone to talk to and you have to take that into consideration. You have to treat every single person on the other end of that phone as if they were grandparents who you’ve loved and grown up with.”

Wahrsager said that PERS operators are specifically trained in learning how to put people at ease, as well as how to deal with people who may have a slight case of dementia or can’t hear as well as a typical person.

During an emergency situation or when help needs to be summoned, PERS operators work in teams of two. While one relays the customers’ information and the problem to emergency responders or family members, the other operator stays on the line with the customer and talks to them until help arrives.

PERS Contracts and Legislation

Depending upon the company, most PERS subscribers can expect to pay between $25 and $35 a month for monitoring. A general rule of thumb about most PERS contracts, however, Wahrsager said is that should a customer enter a hospital for an extended period of time or has to be placed in a nursing facility, the contract, no matter the terms is completely nullified.

“A PERS contract is not like a burglar alarm contract,” he said. “It has a much shorter lifespan, even though there are some medical alert companies out there that are holding elderly people to extensive five and seven year contracts.”

Wahrsager added that companies who do engage in such dubious business practices run the risk of being sued by state attorney generals as many are being now.

As far as legislation is concerned, many states employ licensing standards in which the firm offering PERS monitoring and the monitoring station itself has to be licensed to do so in that state. Even though a company may be licensed for burglar and fire alarms, many states have regulations that treat PERS monitoring separately.

There are also federal regulations that prohibit operators from dispensing medical advice over the phone. According to Wahrsager, some companies advertise that they have EMS-trained operators, which he said is somewhat misleading to the consumer.

“The problem with this is that it really is a sales tool,” he said. “The EMS operator is not dispensing any form of medical advice and if they do they are subject to violations of HIPAA regulations and federal regulations because an EMS worker is only licensed in the one state in which they operate. For example, if the central station is in Pennsylvania and they’re dispatching in Florida, they cannot give out critical medical information because they would be in violation of HIPAA laws.”

Marketing a PERS system

As far as marketing a PERS solution, Wahrsager said that his company markets directly to end users on the Internet through their website, www.seniorcare911.com, as well as through home healthcare agencies because they are frequently contracted by insurance companies and families to provide visiting nurse services and they realize that many of the people their working with could use the assistance of a PERS system. In addition, the company also markets through religious organizations and counties and state agencies.

In contrast to the selling of a traditional burglar or fire alarm, Wahrsager said that dealers typically need to have less aggressive people working to sell PERS.

“It’s a different paradigm. You’re kind of tugging on the heart strings of people,” he said. “Whether you’re selling it to the end user themselves or the family of the end user, their children who feel guilty about leaving their parents three states away, you have to have a higher degree of ethics and a sense of understanding about what the PERS system is being required for and why people need it. You need to train your people. It’s not for Joe the trunk slammer. It’s for somebody who cares about people.”