Up until not so long ago, lone worker communication options were pretty limited to hollering for help, and if you lost consciousness you were entirely out of luck. Even a group, such as a wilderness school, could run into trouble if a medical emergency struck while they were off in the boonies. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then. Here’s an updated guide to some of the latest options and considerations:
a. Where to begin– If reception is adequate wherever you’re heading, carry a cell phone, two way portable or citizen’s band radio. If landline phones or hard-wired panic buttons are installed where you’re heading, so much the better, but they’re not always within reach, especially if you’re out in the wilderness, or inspecting a mothballed building.
b. Regardless of which device you select, set up a check in / check out protocol with a dispatcher or friend. Let them know where you are heading, when you arrive, and when to start worrying. If you don’t call in at a set time, they should call you. If they can’t reach you, or if you indicate a problem, they should send help.
c. Invest in tracking devices. The most basic include panic buttons and geographic positioning, but not much else. Fine for if you fall and break a leg. If avalanches are a concern you’ll need trackers undeterred by a few feet of snow. More advanced versions include more communication options, usually texting, often with a few buttons and multiple pre-recorded messages (i.e. we’ve arrived, we’re fine, medical emergency, send helicopter, send medics, send rangers, active shooter). Spare-no-expense devices will have satellite technology options, for when the user is beyond cell tower range. While dedicated satellite phones have been around for a while, only recently is it becoming possible to download satellite-capability onto standard smart phones.
(Some examples: http://www.findmespot.com/en/ , www.inreachdelorme.com , or http://www.acrartex.com/products/catalog/personal-locator-beacons/resqlink-plb/
d. Some schools have opted for dedicated safety pendants, fobs, bracelets or cards that only work on campus, usually by either piggybacking on the school’s wi-fi system, or by relying on redundant repeaters installed throughout the property to form a self-healing network. That means if one repeater fails, the signal will seek out another and delivery will not be compromised. These devices can be used to call for help and send brief text messages. One strength of this approach is that most are designed to function in otherwise challenging locations, such as basements, where other technologies might fail. They may even be able to pinpoint which floor you’re on – most GPS devices cannot distinguish altitude. Examples to look at would include www.ttiguardian.com or www.ekahau.com
e. On the other hand, if you are at least as concerned about safety while off campus, trekking in the wilds, working as a lineman, or even while traveling to and from work or school, a GPS or cell-tower based tracker may be preferable. Some of these can run for months on fresh batteries – one big advantage over devices that require nightly recharging.
f. A downside to dedicated tracking devices is that you are saddled with yet another device to drag around with you. If that’s a deal-breaker, a better option would be to download or build in a GPS tracking feature onto devices you’re already carrying around, such as smart phones. (Examples: www.metissecure.com or http://www.boldgroup.com/products/boldsos )
g. Take time to pinpoint the features you need before settling on a device. Some options now available, include the following:
i. Portable panic buttons. The simplest versions may be more affordable, whether as downloaded features or as dedicated devices.
ii. Multiple buttons. For example, Ekahau’s card has two buttons and a pull tab, programmable to indicate the type of trouble you’re in: lockdown needed, send medical help, or behavioral assistance requested. More sophisticated products generally offer more messaging and triggering options, including some discussed shortly. (I.e. www.ekahau.com )
iii. “Dead man” switches – if you don’t send a message hourly (or at a pre-designated time) a monitor checks on you. If they don’t receive a satisfactory response they send help.
iv. Other “I’m in trouble” automated features. Some devices can send an alert if the device drops rapidly, is intentionally shaken, lies flat (such as when someone falls over, or doesn’t move for a pre-determined amount of time (so don’t fall asleep!) I.e. www.ciscor.com, or www.safetylineloneworker.com )
v. Ease of access. A dedicated device, such as a pendant, is pretty much always there when you need it. The problem with standard cell phones is the need to power them up, pull up the phone feature, and dial 911. This can be difficult to accomplish while being chased by a bear, or a noncustodial parent, or if you just can’t get your hands on the phone. The inclusion of more advanced options (such as an intentional shake triggering a call) can overcome this potential weakness.
Beyond identifying preferred features, consider the widely varying fees. Significant costs can include system installation, maintenance, purchase of individual devices and monthly monitoring fees. Note: some systems may offer a “no monthly fee” option (i.e. www.assistivetechnologyservices.com ) in which you program the device to call your own people instead of a monitoring service.
The bottom line is: there’s probably a device or app out there that can do anything you’d like. The trick is to figure out what you need it to do, and how much you can afford to invest – good moves before being dazzled by whatever device first crosses your path!