Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Story Vault

By Audrey Fraizer

Medical alert companies’ dispatchers and calltakers get the bad rap from contemporaries working at PSAPs.

“They’re not taken seriously,” said Erin Trumpler, EMD and trainer at Rescue Alert in South Jordan, Utah. “There’s a stigma. They work for alarm companies. I thought the same when I was a 9-1-1 operator in Los Angeles (Calif.).”

Trumpler has since changed her opinion, and it’s not because she had to in the interest of her current employment. She accepted the job and soon realized that although “we’re not a replacement for 9-1-1,” there is certainly a time and place for the service provided.

“We’re here for people who can’t always get to the phone to dial 9-1-1,” Trumpler said. “We’re their connection before help arrives.”

Rescue Alert calltakers provide that calming voice to reassure callers in an emergency armed with the medical instructions available in the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS).

Response Center Director Michael Bangerter said Rescue Alert undertook the initiative in 2003 for much the same reason as 9-1-1 center administrators.

“We wanted it so our calltakers could do more than wait on the line and tell customers help is on its way,” he said. “The ability to give medical assistance is a moral imperative, and that’s why we chose the MPDS.”

Within one week of becoming EMD certified, Bangerter gave a caller instructions for the Heimlich maneuver.

“If we hadn’t been using the MPDS, the outcome for this caller, and the others we have helped since then, could have been much different,” he said.

Rescue Alert subscribers wear a button on a pendant or wristband that they can push in an emergency. The signal initiates two-way communication between the caller and Rescue Alert call centers in South Jordan and St. George, Utah, providing subscribers with a radius of 600 feet from the Rescue Alert device hooked to the phone jack in their home. If the caller is unable to speak, the signal serves as the alert to get help on the way. The system also works with cellphone technology.

Although 95% of the calls involve nonemergencies, the company’s calltakers have assisted in many medical emergencies, including childbirth-delivery and stroke, and have alerted appropriate agencies in situations involving domestic violence, strokes, and fires. The company’s false alarm rate is less than 1%.

The 55 Rescue Alert calltakers are EMD certified and adhere to the same requirements, such as continuing dispatch education to qualify for recertification. Their EMD calls are also quality checked. Training lasts six weeks, with two more weeks on the floor with a mentor before flying solo.

The two centers combined receive an average of 24,000 alarms each week, although volume can double and triple during a critical mass incident. The busiest hours are between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. (in all time zones).

Rather than sitting back and waiting for the calls to come in during a bad stretch of weather or disaster, calltakers provide welfare checks. A bedridden female subscriber in Baltimore (Md.) was able to receive needed help from a Rescue Alert calltaker making the phone rounds during Hurricane Sandy.

“We were able to contact a pastor of her local church who, in turn, sent [church] missionaries over to check on her and found that she had one can of tuna left to wait out the storm,” Bangerter said. “That’s how we’re different from 9-1-1, and why our subscribers stay with us.”

Lisa Wolfley, a supervisor in the St. George center, said the personal contact and the potential for knowing subscribers fuel her passion for the job.

“We can provide medical help, but a lot of our callers need someone to talk to,” she said. “A subscriber had fallen hard on the floor and she was crying from fear. A friend had been dead on the floor for almost two days after a fall, and she was very scared of the same happening to her. We talked the 15 minutes it took for response to arrive and help her.”

Similar to the development of protocol, the Rescue Alert system evolved from an idea to provide greater help in an emergency. Nearly 30 years ago, Michael Bangerter’s father, Richard Bangerter, read an article in Reader’s Digest about the emerging 9-1-1 and that set the wheels in motion; the first device was released in 1986.

Several models have been released since then, with the two most recent models being a cellular-connected device, requiring no landline in the home, and another model that is compatible with emerging telephone systems, such as VoIP lines. Both systems are available for use in the U.S. and Canada.