Dead cheap 911 dialing solution for someone who can't speak
July 30, 2017 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I have a family member who recently had surgery to remove a tongue tumor. Though she's recovering nicely, she won't be able to speak intelligibly on the phone for months. A caregiver has been living with her, but she will soon be ready to live alone again ... but for one thing. She needs a way to summon medical help in an emergency.

Traditional med-alert systems rely on speaking response, or come with a monthly monitoring fee that she can't afford. She has an older flip phone on a pay-as-you-go plan that she spends about $80/year for, broadband with WiFi shared with the neighbors, no landline. She's not interested to upgrading to a smartphone for daily use (tried it, didn't like it). She's mobile and dexterous enough to dial 911 on her phone, but as I understand it, cell tower triangulation doesn't have the precision to get to a specific address. Since she has a trach, an emergency could very well involve breathing problems, with no time to lose. But she can't tell a dispatcher her address, or the nature of her emergency.

Since even an unactivated cell phone can dial 911, it seems like we should be able to pick up an old working phone and set it up with a single button to press to dial 911. Another app should then be able to play a short pre-recorded clip that provides her address and describes her medical condition. Seems like this should be an all-in-one solution available somewhere, but I can't find it. But I think I'm smart enough to set up something even a luddite could operate in an emergency.

Sound workable? Has anyone seen an app that can dial 911 and seamlessly play a recorded clip? Is there a better (but still cheap) solution we should consider?
posted by peakcomm to Technology (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe go low-tech?

There are many free text to speech programs online. She could call using a regular phone, and types in what she wants articulated?
posted by porpoise at 2:43 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Some regional 911 centers now support text messages. You might call the local police non-emergency line and find out. Another option is to have her call someone else who can respond.
posted by nickggully at 2:44 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

edit: nevermind, that was not affordable.

But there may be apps out there for a computer or tablet that could play back recorded messages.
posted by nickggully at 2:45 PM on July 30

This is a very low tech idea, but if the area of concern is home perhaps you could record something on a cassette "I need emergency medical attention. I am at ADDRESS. I cannot talk due to an X. Please come quickly. Contact FAMILY MEMBER." And then have said cadette available to hit play on an old Walkman?
posted by raccoon409 at 2:47 PM on July 30 [13 favorites]

Should have mentioned ... already checked and text-to-911 is not a thing in her town. Her flip phone can do text in theory, but it's the old, slow, multi-click to get a single letter style. Consequently, she doesn't pay for the service. She has voice-only.
posted by peakcomm at 2:48 PM on July 30

There's a government website for that!
posted by jeffamaphone at 2:54 PM on July 30 [6 favorites]

Our local police dispatch has a system in which they can basically flag an address, so that info comes up if someone calls for help from that address (e.g., this person has a mental health condition and may respond erratically to intervention; this person left a message saying they were worried their ex was stalking them, etc.). I realize your concern is about communicating the address, but it may be worth calling the local dispatch (generally the police non-emergency number) and asking if they have any ideas or suggestions.
posted by lazuli at 2:55 PM on July 30 [8 favorites]

If all interested family members are willing to split the cost of Life Alert,* I can vouch for them being incredibly flexible with their customer's needs. Her caregiver would need to be there during set up, and they can explain the situation to the Life Alert staff. If your family member were to experience an emergency, the Life Alert staff would know that she is unable to communicate and would alert emergency services.

* my parents had a basic system last year for less than $50 per month. My 5 sibs and I split the cost among us. We also split the initial setup cost.
posted by cooker girl at 3:01 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

It may also be worth looking into how much a landline for a couple months would cost; it may be the cheapest option.
posted by lazuli at 3:03 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Check her cell account to see if she can specify an "E911" address. This is an address that the provider should send to 911 if there's a call from the phone. Some VOIP systems support this, too (Ooma, et al.)

Also, yeah, price out POTS and a plain phone.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:05 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

(And if she does end up with a landline, I would still urge you to call dispatch and let them know that an emergency, non-speaking call from that number/address is likely a trach-related medical emergency.)
posted by lazuli at 3:09 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

You have got some great advice above. I would suggest looking into 'flagging' her address with local EMS/Fire, providing as much information as you can to them.
I would strongly suggest looking into some form of communication device for her. There are many apps for ipad/android, some free, which will give her the ability to 'speak' in simple sitautions. Your local hospital/rehabilitation center should be able to help with even a short term loan. You want to talk to a speech language pathologist with expertise in augmentative communication. If you want some more cheap ideas for DIY, feel free to message me, and I can help you with some ideas.
For at home, by the phone, something like this could be useful. They allow 7 second messages. I would get someone to record "I have a tracheostomy, I am non-verbal" "I have a medical emergency and need help at XXX street" "yes" "no". She could dial 911, and hold the phone close the button (they say they are pretty loud for use in classroom). This would allow her to answer y/n questions. They also allow her to even answer the phone and communicate why she can't talk. And they are cheap. You might even be able to buy them locally at a teacher supply story.
If you have a bit more funds, something similar to this thingcould allow for loud emergency messages she could use on the phone and some additional useful phrases for day to day life. They are simple enough for you to program and manage without professional support. And it's pretty non threatening from a technology perspective.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 4:23 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

I agree with flagging if possible, and google "silent call procedure" and her state. For example, this came up for MA
posted by kapers at 5:54 PM on July 30

All VoIP services are required to provide 911 calling and on registration, the user must provide a 911 location. So location won't be an issue if she signs up for VoIP service of some kind.

That doesn't solve the speaking problem, though. A relay service of some kind is likely her best bet; though relay services generally aren't meant to be used for calling 911, they will relay calls from subscribers to 911; she may need to set up her 911 location with the relay provider in advance. Relay services are available that don't require a TTY, but may require a smartphone, tablet, or computer (e.g., something to type on).

In about six months, the big four wireless carriers will be rolling out real time text (RTT), which (in theory) will allow a user to reach 911 directly via text even if the local call center doesn't support text to 911, because the RTT call will be translated to TTY (which all 911 call centers are required to have). There are still lots of questions about how that will work, though, and the timing is not soon enough for you.

All told, I think her best bet is using a relay service, whether a TTY relay service (and getting a landline and TTY machine) or an IP relay service (which will require a smartphone, tablet, or computer, but could work with VoIP service or possibly mobile service).

Full disclosure: I'm a lawyer who works in the area of 911 and disabilities access regulation for telecom and VoIP providers, so I know a lot about how this stuff is SUPPOSED to work, though how things actually work in practice is often a different matter. Still, feel free to PM if you have questions about what options are available. NB: Many of these services should be available to her for free or at a reduced price.
posted by devinemissk at 6:59 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

On Voip, the way Vonage tells me (when I signed up) that this works is that you register your address for 911 purposes. But if you DO ever call 911 they connect you to their call centre FIRST and confirm the address before forwarding your call the the appropriate 911 call centre. So even if speaking weren't an issue, VOIP is probably not your answer.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:14 PM on July 30

Call the local police non-emergency number. This is their job, their area of specialization. They should have an answer for this and for how it works in her area. If they don't, call your congressional rep, because that's not okay.
posted by theora55 at 8:44 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]

Here's a list of state telecommunications equipment distribution programs. These programs provide free hardware to assist people with disabilities, including speech and hearing disabilities, to use the telephone. Look up your family member's state and contact the provider. The equipment is provided for free for as long as the person needs it. This happens to be one of the program paid for by the taxes on our landlines and mobile phones, so making use of it helps justify the program's continued existence.
posted by Lunaloon at 5:08 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]

We haven't had a landline in around ten years but the jack still works to call 911. If she still has an old phone jack in her house, see if you can find an old phone and plug it in.
posted by artychoke at 6:02 AM on July 31 [6 favorites]

I am sure 911 solutions exist for people born mute; you could approach the local precinct and ask how these are handled in the individual's geographic area.
posted by WCityMike at 6:10 AM on July 31

All landlines are capable of plugging in a phone and calling 911. You can probably find a phone for less than $4 at your local thrift store. If not, last time I looked, they were around $10 at Walmart. Calling 911 from a landline gives the dispatcher your address.

Now, if the 911 dispatch center is well-trained, they'd recognize your friend banging ...---... on the wall, floor, phone, etc. However, I don't know that I'd trust my life to someone recognizing S.O.S., so I'd be calling the police non-emergency line as suggested above.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 8:00 PM on August 3

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