How Do Medical Alerts Work?

Medical alert devices, also known as personal emergency response systems, allow the user to summon assistance from a monitoring center in the event of an emergency situation. Alert devices can be used by anyone, but are typically used by the following:

  • Seniors living independently at home
  • People with physical challenges or limitations
  • Individuals recovering from hospital stays or in rehabilitation

What Makes Up A Medical Alert System?

Although it may sound like a complex system at first, a medical alert system is actually a very simple device in both its design and operation. The components that are involved include:

Medical Alarm Console

There are a number of different consoles in the marketplace with a wide variety of designs. Despite their distinct appearances, almost all of them connect to your normal telephone line and require no special connection (They are very similar to an answering machine connection). The console, when activated, will automatically dial the pre-programmed telephone number to alert the monitoring center of your emergency.

The standard medical alarm console has a built in speaker / voice module (two-way voice), which allows the user to communicate with an emergency dispatcher without being on the telephone. This technology is known as two-way voice and is critical for those who are concerned about not being able to reach their telephone in an emergency situation.

The console additionally houses a backup battery that will keep the alert system functioning in the event of a loss of power for a period of time. While a standby backup battery varies based on the system that you are using, it is important to understand that the number given is always ‘up to’ a certain number of hours. For example, if a medical alert provider says their backup battery lasts 24 hours, it really means ‘up to 24 hours’ because they cannot determine if it will truly last that long.

Some medical alarm consoles, such as used by LifeStation, will have additional features. These include:

  • Braille characters on the EMERGENCY, CANCEL & HOME buttons for those with visual impairments
  • Visual & Audible Notification that alerts you to the system’s operation
  • A weekly automatic test timer that ensures that the console is communicating effectively with the emergency monitoring center

Help Button

The help button, also known as an emergency pendant or transmitter, is an extremely simple device that is used in the event of an emergency to remotely signal the medical alarm console that assistance is needed.

The key factor regarding a help button is that it must be waterproof. Waterproof help buttons, as used by LifeStation, can be exposed to water, which gives you the advantage of not having to remove it when showering, washing the dishes or working where water is present. This is not the case with pendants that are simply “water resistant”.

Depending upon the system used, there are typically two options for wearing the help button that the user can choose from:

  • Chain that can be worn as a pendant around the neck
  • Adjustable wrist watch

Help buttons are lightweight (½ ounce) and virtually unnoticeable. The battery in the help button should work for up to 5 years.

Medical Monitoring Center

The medical monitoring center, also known as an emergency response center, is the facility where emergency signals from the medical alarm console are monitored. There are many factors that should be researched when you are shopping for a medical alert system provider:

  • Is the monitoring center owned by the alert system provider or is it a third party arrangement?
  • Is the facility Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed to ensure the highest standards for the facility’s operation?
  • Are the center’s dispatchers put through rigorous, nationally accredited training programs?
  • What is the average response time in handling emergency signals of this type?

The Way It Works

The way that a medical alert system works is quite simple. Following the initial connection of the system, taking no more than 5 minutes, the system should be tested with the medical monitoring center. This ensures that everything has been done properly and to verify that the medical alarm system is well located.

When assistance is needed in the event of an emergency, the user only has to press their personal help button (depending upon the system, the emergency button on the console can also be pressed). In either case, the console will automatically dial a pre-programmed telephone number, which connects the console with the medical monitoring center.

At this time, a monitoring center dispatcher will attempt to communicate with the person who has pressed the help button and determine what their need is. In the event that the user cannot be spoken to, the dispatcher will typically follow a pre-defined set of instructions. Instructions are setup by the user and/or their family members when the system is first tested.

Potential instructions of responding when a dispatcher is unable to speak with the user are as follows:

  • Notify Emergency responders, followed by family, friends and neighbors
  • Notify Family, Friends & Neighbors, followed by Emergency Responders
  • Notify One Person, followed by Emergency Responders, followed By Other Family, Friends or Neighbors
  • Most medical monitoring centers have the ability to customize responses in any manner that you choose.

Note: An important issue to research when looking for a medical alarm company is any additional costs that may exist. Such extra costs might include:

  • Equipment repair & maintenance costs
  • Early cancellation penalties

Researching this issue will save you money in the long term, as certain providers will charge the above-mentioned fees without hesitation.


Medical alert systems are a valuable tool in allowing people the freedom to remain independent and at the same time feel confident in their ability to get help in any emergency situation. As you research alert system providers, please take into account all of the information presented.


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