Magnavox MobilePAL+GPS emergency wireless phone.

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03/05/2002  

Emergency phone very picky about emergencies

By Deborah Porterfield, Gannett News Service



The Magnavox MobilePAL+GPS wireless phone seemed like the perfect security blanket to take on a car trip from New York to Florida. If a tire went flat, the phone's emergency response team could contact a local towing service. If someone came down with food poisoning, the phone's operators could provide directions to the nearest emergency room. And if an accident happened, operators could call the police. Best of all, because of the phone's Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology, the operators would even be able to tell emergency workers where to find the car.

Luckily, the trip proved uneventful — and so the phone's operators never needed to respond to any real emergencies. But along the way, they did cheerfully respond to several calls in which they were asked to identify the phone's ever-changing location.

Mixed signals

As with other GPS devices, the accuracy of the tracking depended on whether or not the phone's signals were being blocked by tall trees, buildings or even the inside of the car. The phone's operators had no trouble identifying the phone's location in Weldon, N.C., while it was being held outside in an open parking lot. But they could not locate its position while it was inside a moving minivan — even when it was placed on a dashboard. Likewise, they couldn't pick up a good signal while the phone was in a woody rest area in Georgia.

This is fine if your emergency happens in an area where it's safe for you to seek a signal while standing in an open area. But it's not so good if you're trapped inside a car or lost somewhere in the woods. And because it can take four or so minutes for the operator to track the phone, holding it outside can be rather unpleasant if the weather's cold or rainy.

As a wireless phone, the analog model from RemoteMDx also has several limitations. Unlike most other wireless phones, this one doesn't have a keypad and can't accept incoming calls; instead the white phone has a big red button that you press when you want to contact its round-the-clock team of emergency response operators.

That would be fine if you could count on hearing the operators on the other end of the line. But unfortunately, the signals on this analog phone often proved weak, making it difficult to carry on a conversation. This proved especially true when trying to talk inside a car or a building. In a real emergency, a better quality cell phone would have proved much more reliable.

Like other wireless phones, the MobilePAL's final costs depend on what service plan you buy. If you sign up for a year's contract at $9.95 or $16.95 a month, the phone costs $199.95. If you sign up for the $16.95-a-month plan and also pay $5 a month for a phone replacement plan, the phone costs $99.95.

Extra services, extra costs

If you pay $9.95 per month for the Personal Security Plan, the operators will place calls to emergency services, such as ambulance, police and fire departments, track your phone's location, and direct you to nearby hospitals and vet clinics. If you sign up for the $16.95 Personal Security Advance Plan, they will also give you directions to the nearest ATM and connect you to relatives and friends. Just know that placing personal calls costs an extra 99 cents per minute. Clearly, this isn't the phone to use when you're in the mood to chat with friends.

In fact, the only reason to consider buying this device is for the extra peace of mind it can bring people who want to have it on hand just in case. And that's fine, as long as they can count on all their emergencies taking place in wide-open fields and parking lots.

MobilePal+GPS

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Pro: If an emergency happens in an open space outdoors, you can call the operator, who can track your location and give it to rescuers.

Con: If an emergency happens inside, not only can the satellites not see you, but the phone's operators may have trouble hearing you, too.

Bottom line: If this pricey gadget makes you feel safer, bring it along for the ride. Just be sure to pack your cell phone, too.

Details: The phone comes with a panel that flips open to reveal the big Red Call button; a 95-decibel siren then can be set off in emergencies; an antenna; and a speaker phone. It runs on four AAA batteries.
 

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