I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” That is a well-known quote from the TV commercials advertising Life Alert, a subscription emergency alert system that allows senior citizens to have a one-button transceiver linking them to a private dispatching service for police, fire or EMS response. But not every senior, shut-in or individual with a health condition or other issue can afford the minimum three-year contract that starts at $50 month. Instead, many law enforcement agencies, especially in small towns and rural areas, are helping to check in on seniors via a free daily telephone call.
Automated telephone reassurance programs are an example of a community-oriented policing strategy that goes beyond traditional crimefighting efforts. They are not only transforming the way police officers interact with the public, but also yielding numerous benefits for both law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
Automated telephone reassurance systems for seniors began over three decades ago. They have grown in popularity in recent years and now are used by police departments from California to Massachusetts. The fairly inexpensive and easy-to-use computerized calling systems provide an important service to the nation’s growing senior population, which is expected to reach 65 million by 2025. Today, nearly half of women aged 75 and older live alone. Advocates for older adults say telephone check-in programs can help seniors remain independent in their homes and socially connected, while giving them and their family members peace of mind.
Regular check-ins build trust and rapport between law enforcement officers and community members.
Understanding telephone reassurance programs
Police departments are becoming more sensitive in responding to the needs of older adults, according to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. For instance, they are training officers in how to handle seniors with dementia. Telephone check-in programs are another way of doing that.
Telephone reassurance programs are based on a simple yet profoundly impactful concept: law enforcement agencies provide regular check-ins via phone calls to individuals who might be isolated, elderly, disabled, have health issues or are otherwise in need of social interaction. The program serves as a lifeline, offering not only a feeling of security but also a means of combating loneliness and fostering a stronger sense of community belonging.
How it works
Seniors who sign up for telephone reassurance programs decide when they want to be called. They typically are required to give police the name and phone number of an emergency contact.
Depending on the system used, participants get a computer-generated call or a live call from a volunteer every day. In the case of automated systems, a recorded crime prevention message or even a message from the police chief or sheriff can be part of the call. If the call is not answered, a recall is usually made. If the participant still does not answer, police may contact their emergency contact or dispatch an officer to the home to check on them.
Benefits for the community
Building trust and rapport: Regular check-ins build trust and rapport between law enforcement officers and community members, reinforcing positive relationships and cooperation within the community.
Enhanced safety: Telephone reassurance programs serve as a lifeline for individuals who may be at risk or in distress. Regular check-ins provide a sense of security and prompt assistance if needed, contributing to the overall safety of the community.
Positive public perception: Participating in telephone reassurance programs enhances the public’s perception of law enforcement as caring and community-oriented, fostering increased cooperation and support from residents.
Community well-being: Beyond safety, these programs contribute to the well-being of community members by addressing feelings of loneliness and isolation. The simple act of receiving a reassuring phone call can have a profound impact on mental health, fostering a sense of connection and belonging.
Preventing isolation: Many participants in these programs are seniors or individuals with limited mobility, making them susceptible to isolation. Regular phone calls provide a lifeline of communication, reducing feelings of loneliness and fostering a sense of connection.
Benefits for law enforcement
Community policing: Telephone reassurance programs align with the principles of community policing, fostering positive relationships between law enforcement and the community. Regular, non-emergency interactions help build trust and rapport.
Community building: These programs enable law enforcement agencies to build trust and rapport with individuals who might be overlooked. These programs send a strong message that the police care about the well-being of all citizens.
Targeted approach: These programs enable law enforcement to target specific individuals who may require additional assistance, ensuring a more personalized and effective approach to community policing.
Early intervention: Law enforcement can identify potential issues or emergencies at an early stage, allowing for prompt intervention if signs of deteriorating health or distress are observed.
Increased efficiency: Leveraging technology to streamline communication and data tracking can enhance the efficiency of these programs, allowing law enforcement to reach a larger number of individuals.
Strengthening police–community relations: By engaging in non-enforcement interactions, law enforcement officers can break down barriers and humanize themselves in the eyes of the public.
Reduced emergency calls: Regular check-ins may help prevent emergency situations from escalating, reducing the number of emergency calls and allowing law enforcement to focus resources on proactive community engagement rather than reactive responses.
Positive public perception: Participating in telephone reassurance programs enhances the public’s perception of law enforcement as caring and community-oriented. This positive image can lead to increased cooperation and support from residents.
Implementing a program
To implement telephone reassurance programs effectively, law enforcement agencies need to prioritize training for officers, establish clear protocols for response and collaborate with community organizations. Leveraging technology to streamline communication and data tracking can further enhance the efficiency of these programs.
The price tag for telephone reassurance systems varies. RUOK, the nation’s oldest telephone reassurance system, is used by 2,000 police agencies, according to its website. It costs about $750 to buy, plus hardware and setup, and has no maintenance fees. Database Systems Corp., a Phoenix-based data management company, has sold its CARE Call Reassurance system to dozens of police departments, charging nearly $11,000 for purchase, installation and the first year of maintenance. Other providers such as My Safety Call charge a per-subscriber fee of $15 a month that some agencies pay for.
Economy of scale
Telephone reassurance programs are less common in big cities, where large numbers of people might sign up, potentially straining budgets because more officers would be needed to check on seniors who do not answer their phones. But in small cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas, the programs are very manageable.
For telephone reassurance programs to succeed in the long term, they need to be continuously marketed to new seniors. Some departments do that by publicizing them on websites and at senior centers, hospital emergency rooms, apartment complexes and churches.
So why invest in creating a telephone reassurance program?
The impetus: Incidents in which officers find elderly individuals who have fallen on the floor and suffered a resulting hip injury, or are unconscious from a medical condition and would have faced death if not found. The list of lives saved across the country is long.
Telephone reassurance programs represent a heartwarming and effective approach to community policing. They showcase law enforcement’s dedication to protecting and supporting all members of society, not just in matters of crime prevention but also in fostering well-being and human connection. These programs serve as a testament to the evolving role of law enforcement in creating safer, more compassionate and more closely knit communities.