Going mobile

The changing PERS market presents opportunities, challenges for central stations
 - 
Wednesday, July 25, 2012

America’s elderly population is increasing and is becoming increasingly mobile, with health care technology advancing in lock step. That fact hasn’t been lost on the monitoring world, which is gearing up for new revenue opportunities that will accompany the growth of personal emergency response systems (PERS) and mobile PERS devices.

According to a recent report by the Central Station Alarm Association, 65 percent of monitoring companies are involved with PERS and senior monitoring at some level, with another 9 percent looking to become involved in the next two years. More than a third of those currently involved are planning substantial growth.

The biggest gains in PERS monitoring are projected to revolve around mobile technologies and applications. While monitoring via PERS pendants linked to home base stations is expected to increase 2 percent from 2012 to 2015, monitoring via PERS pendants or wristbands using mobile networks is forecast to rise 35 percent during the same period, according to the CSAA.

“It looks like we’re going to be seeing dramatic growth in systems that leverage the mobile communications network rather than [or in addition to] premises-bound base units,” said John Brady, president of TRG Associates, while discussing the report June 27 at ESX in Nashville. “And it seems like a number of companies are awake and acting on the opportunity to provide more comprehensive senior monitoring, including tracking movement, cooking and bathroom activities; monitoring medicine consumption, and monitoring life signs and other diagnostic information.”

Central stations that are new to PERS and are looking to take advantage of the growth do face challenges, however, especially when it comes to the mobile aspect of the market with GPS and two-way audio. Monitoring outside the static environment of a building can lead to difficulties locating and identifying those in need, then getting help to them.

In the vast majority of cases when an MPERS device is activated, operators resolve the situation simply by talking to the person who sent in the alarm, according to Morgan Hertel, vice president of operations for Syracuse, N.Y.-based Rapid Response Monitoring.

“Almost all of the mobile devices today are enabled with audio control, whether it’s one-way or two-way, and most of them are two-way,” he said. “So more often than not, when somebody calls from a mall, for example, they can tell you where they are and if they’re OK. When somebody falls and gets hurt, usually somebody who happens to be a bystander will pick up the phone or device and they’ll hear us talking, and we’ll be able to have the conversation with them.”

Hertel said it becomes a problem when the central station can’t contact the person with the MPERS device or talk to someone else nearby. Then operators have to rely on GPS to try to pinpoint the person’s location for first responders.

“The more openness [GPS] has to the open sky, the better the accuracy,” Hertel said. “There are situations where the accuracy is well within a couple of yards, and that happens quite often. But buildings have some inherent issues. If the signal comes from inside a mall that doesn’t [accommodate] GPS technology, the last location it has will be somewhere in an open-sky area just outside the mall.”

The pinpointed location could be the front door of the building, or it could be somewhere in the area outside the mall. That increases the challenge for the central station, Hertel said.

“In the mobile world, you have to have some sort of photo and a basic description of what the person looks like so if you’re trying to tell [a responder] that someone fell down in a parking lot, you can tell them what to look for,” he said. “You’ve got to get the photos, you’ve got to database the stuff, you’ve got to have a process for updating those photos as [people] change their hair color and hair style. It’s an ongoing thing.”

Kevin Helmig, president of Centralarm Monitoring in Manchester, N.H., said photo identification often plays a key role in getting help to those in need in a mobile environment.

“In a statically-installed system scenario, we would not know necessarily what the people look like either, but it’s a lot easier to identify them within their own home than in a mall with hundreds or thousands of people,” he said. “If it were a clearly defined medical or panic situation and we did not get any response, or we heard what sounds like a kidnapping or something of that nature, we would just dispatch. In other words, when in doubt, send the authorities.”

Helmig said PERS accounts for about 25 percent of Centralarm’s business, with MPERS making up about 5 percent. Both categories are growing rapidly, he said, and the company is looking to expand into other facets of senior monitoring.

“A new thrust is for us to be more involved in the medically oriented services,” he said. “We already handle medication reminders. As far as [monitoring] vital signs, we have newer clientele asking us to do that and we’re ready to do it. We haven’t done it yet, but we’re contracted to.”

PERS makes up nearly 20 percent of Rapid Response’s business, Hertel said, with MPERS a small but rapidly growing fraction of that amount. He predicted that mobile applications would account for 25 percent of PERS business within five years, and that this type of medical telematics technology would dramatically influence the marketplace.

“So not only are we dealing with positions and panic buttons, but we’re going to be dealing with heart rates and respiratory rates and things like that which are going to start to become more and more mainstream in these [mobile] devices,” he said. “It can also be medical consumption and hydration levels. … It’s in its infancy now, but it’s coming.”