Wireless Emergency Response: The Facts

This new technology offers important benefits
New wireless technology offers many opportunities for upgrading communications in a residential care facility. It allows for simple and rapid installation into any building, regardless of age. Also, it is now a simple matter to set up a system so that when a resident triggers an alarm, not only will an audible signal and light be activated at the alarm master station, but the room location will be indicated on a display terminal, and a staff member within a two-mile range can be notified of the situation via a pocket pager that beeps or vibrates. Modern software also summarizes all alarm and response data, providing written proof of reliable security.

Even the more alert residents now populating assisted and independent living homes occasionally run into trouble. These residents seek security by being able to summon help immediately. Even within more independence-oriented living quarters, residents still expect to see some kind of emergency-response system-if only a pull string in the bathroom, which is the most common location for falls.

Owners and operators often find that put- ting in a traditional wired emergency-response system “after the fact” in existing residential facilities can present daunting physical and financial challenges. Installation requires the boring of holes through joists and studs, tearing into the wallboard, tapping into overtaxed junction boxes that house outdated electrical components and stringing miles of wires through floors and attics.

Even with newer facilities, often the owner is dealing with an architect who’s never built a retirement home before, or an electrical contractor whose primary experience in this field is wiring fire alarms. These individuals are not always equipped to wire a facility for a modern emergency-response system.

In basic layout, wireless systems do share some similarities with traditional wired systems. Each unit in a retirement or community care home will have at least one room (usually the bathroom) with a wall-mounted call-for-help station operated by a pull string, or a bedside-mounted push button to activate an alarm that will alert staff of an emergency. However, by relying on ultrahigh-frequency radio waves, a wireless system allows through-the-air communication between a tiny wall-mounted (in any room) transmitter and the receiving station or directly to the staff via pocket pagers. Typically, the master receiving station will be hooked up to a 110-volt AC source, but the transmitter/sending units require only a standard 9-volt DC battery and can be placed at almost any location. Changing or adding locations can be accomplished within minutes. Since wires aren’t needed to connect the transmitters to the receiver, installing literally miles of wiring can be avoided.

Wireless systems also allow use of “nonfixed” sources of help signals-for example, a small wireless pendant that the resident can wear around her neck or wrist, or carry in a pocket. Wherever the resident might roam, she still can send an alarm signal to the staff when necessary.

In all cases, the success of any wireless emergency-response system, especially within a large building or a campus setting, relies on its ability to span large distances with a strong signal. One commonly used measurement is called “open-field range,” the distance that the signal will travel across open space. A typical system might cover 1,600 feet, although there is at least one that traverses at least twice that. An even better way to measure distance is referred to as the “rated range.” It is a tenth of the open-field range but refers, in fact, to the real-world necessity of going through walls within a facility. Although an open-field range of 3,500 feet would yield a rated range of 350, since that figure acts like a radius, this conceivably would provide coverage over every inch of a building that is two football fields in length and 35 stories tall.

It is the receiver’s ability to receive the signal transmitted from the resident’s room that makes the difference in sys-tem range and performance. A very sensitive, narrow-band receiver allows the emergency-response system to detect a resident’s transmission even when there is “noise” in the building. Thus, if a nurse or receptionist inadvertently places a television, laptop computer or even a fan next to the central receiver, the system will ignore this electronic “noise” and still operate reliably.

Another important factor to look for in evaluating a wireless system is whether it is Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approved. This is, in fact, one of the first things that government inspectors check for when reviewing an emergency-call system.

The ability to operate independently of a computer is also a major boon to the reliability of a wireless emergency-response system. Some systems are computer-based. Computers do crash, though; therefore, trusting residents’ lives to a computer-operated system is risky.

For residents’ sense of security, it is important to include “tactile” elements with room alarm stations. For example, a large alarm button can be designed in the shape of a cross so that the resident can feel it and recognize it even in the dark. Also, the resident can feel the button move and click, signaling to him or her that it has been activated. It is also a good idea for all room alarm stations to have a “call confirmation” LED light that flashes when the button is pressed or the pull cord is tugged, providing the resident with yet another level of reassurance that help has been summoned.

Wireless systems can now provide excellent control in facilities housing some residents who tend to wander. All residents can be asked to push a conveniently located check-in button routinely, thus letting the central station know that they are accounted for. At the nurses’ station or reception desk, either a master station printer or optional computer display can be used to track all of the residents who have checked in by a certain time and to alert staff to anyone who hasn’t. Reports can be generated and printed out at future dates to document that all residents were accounted for at a specific time. Modern software also summarizes all alarm and response data over a given period of time, providing additional doc-umentation of reliable security.

Another benefit of wireless technology is the availability of alarm pagers that work across a two-mile range. Staff on break or on lunch hour can be called back on duty at a moment’s notice and, by the same token, can be notified instantly when an alarm has been cancelled.

Wireless communications have a bright future in residential care homes. While wireless emergency-response systems are not yet required in every state, forward-looking owners will see to it that their facilities are prepared for the inevitable consumer-driven demand for their installation. NH

Jerry Johnson, an industrial engineer by training, is president of Cornell Communications, Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more information, phone (800) 558-8957 or (locally) (414) 351-4660. To comment on this article, please send e-mail to johnson0902@ nursinghomesmagazine.com.

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