Many Americans have a cell phone of some sort for emergency purposes only and if so, largely for the ability to call 911. For some this might be an older hand-me-down or refurbished cell phone which may or may not have GPS or a service plan. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) laws require wireless service providers to connect ALL 911 calls to Public Safety Answering Points regardless of cell phone age or plan.
However, there are some big drawbacks to those who may be relying on older phones without GPS and/or no wireless service plan to get help in an emergency. Depending on how old the phone is, the 911 answering center may not be able to map where that phone is located if the caller is unable to talk. The call may even go to the wrong answering center. And if the phone is without a service plan and should get disconnected, there is no way for anyone to call back to that phone as the device does not have an assigned number.
This exact scenario played out in Boone and Dallas Counties in Iowa in this spring. Fortunately for the caller in this scenario, emergency responders were eventually (3.5 hrs later) able to reach the victim and get the medical help that was needed. As a result of this incidence, emergency responders have issued warnings of this peril.
In that light, perhaps it is time to consider other options if you, a loved one, or an elderly family member is replying on an older phone or a phone without a service plan as a means to contact 911 in a medical emergency. Options to consider may be a minimal cell phone service on an updated device or contracting with a Personal Emergency Response Service (PERS) for a medical monitoring device. There is some assistance for these services and devices for those that qualify.
Phone service assistance. Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia and Puerto offer programs that offer free phones and free service to Americans on government assistance or those who are below certain income thresholds. (Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota are included.) The programs and eligibility vary by state. To find out more about these programs, check out Free Government Cell Phones. The FCC offers the Lifeline program to help low-income individuals and families get discounted landline or cell phone service. A Place for Mom offers some excellent suggestions on plans and phones for Seniors.
PERS assistance. Medicare, Medicare supplemental insurance (Medigap), and most private health insurance plans for the elderly do not cover assistance for PERS, medical alert devices or any other form of personal safety monitoring for seniors. However, some options that may be available include Medicaid, state assistance programs for the elderly or fixed income residents that do not qualify for Medicaid, and veteran assistance programs.
When there is an emergency, it is important that responders are able to reach the caller expediently; to make sure that can happen, everyone needs to understand the equipment and service they have and how it works.