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Say goodbye to your old phone … and your alarms?

community alarm kit

When you were wee, did you ever make a telephone with two tin cans and a piece of string? Speak in one can and the vibration passes all the way along the tightened string to the other can, where your pal can hear you clearly. Our current phone systems currently work in much the same way, but that’s about to change.

By 2025 all telephone calls will be routed over the internet. The sound of your voice will turned into computer data, sent along the wires, and turned back into your voice at the other end. All the telephone providers are already moving towards a fully digital service. And that spells problems for anyone whose alarms are linked to any kind of monitoring centre using analogue phone lines. Fire alarms, burglar alarms and community alarms could all be affected.

There are specific challenges for community alarm systems. Let’s say your grandad has a fall, and pulls his alarm cord. The signal is transmitted through an alarm box by telephone to an Alarm Receiving Centre, and someone comes to check him over, pick him up and make sure he’s ok. The alarm box uses analogue technology which may not work so well when telephones go digital. So your grandad will be lying on the floor while his alarm box dials and redials many times before it gets through.

The changeover is already happening. People with Virgin and Sky phones may already be digital, or may be switching over soon. One Scottish council discovered its call failure rate had increased to 12% after thousands of local phone lines switched over to digital. This was a matter of real concern and they took swift action to replace their analogue alarms with new digital boxes. Their call failure rate is now 1% and the new digital boxes send them a “heartbeat”, so that they can always be confident the alarms are working.

The change doesn’t end there. Power cuts don’t knock out analogue phone lines, as they carry their own electricity. With no battery back up, the new digital phones simply won’t work when the power goes down, and that means the community alarm system won’t work either. There is a problem with security, too. It’s easier to “hack” digital phones, so patient data may be at risk.

The Scottish Government has been working on this and is testing out new systems around the country. The answer seems to be the mobile network. By installing battery backed alarm boxes which use the strongest available mobile signals, councils can ensure most of their alarm systems work securely, almost all of the time. Problem solved … except someone has to pay for that extra connection. And someone has to pay for all the new digital kit. With 107,000 people receiving community alarm services, the bill to change it all over will run into tens of millions of pounds.

Change brings opportunities as well as threats. Digital community alarm systems could keep people safe in many different ways through automatic monitoring of heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen and other vital signs, predicting problems and helping to prevent hospital admissions.

Dundee’s telecare service reaches around 6,000 people; per head, the city has more people using telecare than any other Scottish council. The Health & Social Care Partnership is in touch with the Scottish government and other local authorities to find the best way forward. We’ll report progress here, and on the TEC Facebook page.