Telecare Soapbox: Leaping from a towering inferno is no longer my worst nightmare

Editor Steve reflects on a disturbing experience and its implications for telecare.

In the ’80s I saw a fire training film where people were jumping from a tall, burning hotel in Brazil. Reinforced by images from 9/11, having to make such a leap had always been my worst nightmare. You know…you are falling and think “this wasn’t such a good idea…I’ve changed my mind…” But there’s no pause button. You are totally out of control AND there is time to contemplate it…

That was my idea of horror until eight weeks, three days, six and a half hours ago from the time of writing. At that time something else became my worst nightmare…

Some Telecare Aware readers will know that a few houses I let are my main source of income (goodness knows, Telecare Aware doesn’t generate any!) and from time to time I have landlord’s duties to perform, such as making house repairs between tenants. Which is what I was doing on the day my nightmare changed.

I’m on the top floor of a three-storey house in a bathroom with no window. I finish putting up a new shower curtain. I turn to the door that I’d closed casually as I went in. The handle, which is loose and which I need to fix is on the floor – the floor on the other side of the door! I am trapped. The bathroom, empty for the next tenants, contains nothing that can be used as a tool with which to spring the lock.

My phone is in my jacket pocket.

My jacket is two flights of stairs away, next to the front door.

I hammer the door with my fists. There is no point in banging on the walls. The neighbouring houses are empty, awaiting renovation.

A wave of panic hits me. Me! Me! But look, I am not a person who panics! I am not claustrophobic! If I were stuck in a lift (elevator) I’d be the calm one who sits quietly and awaits rescue. Or so I’d always thought until now…

The panic takes form. I’ll not see the people I love again. I’ll never be able to visit my favourite places again. The life to come that I had been taking for granted flashes before my eyes, snatched away in a moment.

Panic. Kidnapped and hidden in a trunk.

Desperation. Trapped in a mine collapse.

Banging. The prison guards decide to ignore you. Permanently.

Screaming. A traitor immured.

Loneliness. Deep. Deeper. Deepest. Waking up in a coffin and realising it has been buried.

The Grim Reaper preparing to reap my future. A person alone in their home. Fallen. On the floor, unable to reach the phone.

My wife, who surely decided to go shopping while I was hanging the shower curtain and has been knocked down and is suffering from amnesia comes in from the garden a few minutes later and hears my shouts and hammering.

However… if you meet me one of these mornings and I look more bleary-eyed than usual it may be that I’d had a hard time fighting down flashbacks when trying to get to sleep. Pass the coffee and don’t ask.

= = = = = = = = =


Shall we call it…

Medic alert? No!

Social alarm? No!

Pendant alarm? No!


Panic alarm? Yes!

The time you need it is when you panic. But the chances are that you will not have the pendant with you. My experience taught me that only a telecare system that does not depend on the person’s active participation will do. That means forget anything body-worn or that needs the user to be conscious to raise an alarm.

What’s the minimum that would do that?

In-home you’d go for safety confirmation (à la Alertacall in the UK) and/or, if more frequent monitoring is required, an open fridge sensor for the daytime and a bed (or bedside rug) pressure sensor for the night time.

Finally, for people who forget where they are when they go out, then at the present state of technology some degree of participation is necessary to carry or to wear a tracking device.

Steve Hards
3 October 2011

Categories: Soapbox.


  1. Steve, about the situation you describe, it’s difficult to say what would work to get you out of this jam or similar except for something embedded in your clothing or a ‘double duty’ object such as a pen, ruler, watch or other ‘useful object’ you’d carry having a two way voice, GPS, heart/respiration and/or accelerometer function.

    Remote sensor based monitoring to me has always been part of a ‘safety net’ that incorporates other aspects such as the ‘open fridge’ (hydration), bathroom frequency (distress), in/out of bed (pressure sensor), ambient sound and water/gas/temperature sensors. The problem is screening for false positives and again, the desire of people to be monitored.

    Having been the victim of a ‘push in’ (to apartment) mugging years ago, and even now often by necessity walking late at night after parking in a common garage, I’d consider this cheap personal security if it were RELIABLE.

  2. Kevin Doughty

    Steve, however did you allow yourself to even enter that building without first performing a full risk assessment?!?

    Knowing your desire to perform dangerous tasks alone and in a property where nobody else might visit for days, you should at least have checked in with a local 24 monitoring centre every hour. They could have called out the cavalry (or your wife) if you hadn’t reported that you were well.

    A full assessment would have revealed that you don’t always have your mobile on you at all times, so the obvious solutions don’t always work as soon as you factor in an individual’s habits and preferences.

    The moral of your story is that a good assessment is more than identifying the risks, but extends to tailoring an individual solution that is consistent with lifestyle and circumstances. The smartest devices will only do their job if they suit that individual. Assessment and prescription are therefore major challenges for telecare teams and need to be supported by further and continuous training.

  3. Steve Hards, Editor

    Unfortunately, my assessment indicated that replacing the shower curtain (no tools required) was low risk. But I was oblivious to the matter of the door handle. :oops:

    Nonetheless the panic was very real. I think it also makes the point that we don’t know how we are going to react until faced with a real situation.

  4. Steve,

    Well, you know what happened to Aron Ralston…….

    A bathroom in a block of flats or Bluejohn Canyon, makes no difference if your stuck and no one knows you’re there. Its a reminder that this can happen to anyone.

    There’s a point to the analogy – the incredibly self reliant Mr Ralston nearly died. Not because of his accident, which was bad enough; but because a series of mistakes and coincidences meant the social network he’d taken for granted weren’t available when he needed it.

    He was loaded with tech, but had nothing configured to call for help. His book (but not the movie which skimmed over that bit) attributes survival to a network of people; and the coincidence that a police helicopter was out there, miles from anywhere. Because his mum nagged them to go looking.

    The reality for telecare technology is that its only of use when deployable – your point I think. However robust the system, eventually, events will conspire to make it unavailable.

    Which is why we’ll always need human intervention. Its worth considering that the tech is just another link to the supportive network. Emergency services, hospital, carer, relative, friend, milkman.

    Society. Which is where we’re back to technology.

    If we focus solely on the alarm function, an alarm is all we get. If the tech enables a societal network that notices when one of its members is out of kilter, and cares for the welfare of the individual, we achieve additional layers of benefit for health, social care, and society as a whole.

    Sorry, got big wordy there.

    What I mean is, people can watch out for each other, and telecare technology which encourages that has to be a good thing.

  5. Christopher Wigley

    I never [b]NEVER[/b] go anywhere without my smartphone with location app, and a Leatherman multi-utencil knife in a sheath on my belt. I know I can say never because the belt also carries my portable oxygen, without which I literally [b]CAN’T[/b] go anywhere.
    “Be Prepared”