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Emergency notification a hot idea for employers

By: Steve Davolt
Employee Benefit News • February 2006

Nothing encourages company loyalty like saving an employee's life. At least that's the sales pitch to employers one company is making for its emergency notification service.

Marietta, Ga.-based Emergency Alert Network began offering the service - ICE, an acronym for "in case of emergency" - last year. ICE (www.icecontact.com) gives first responders to a medical emergency access to an individual's critical medical information and notifies family or friends of the person's situation. Initially, the service was marketed to individuals. Now the company is targeting employers, who, it claims, can use ICE not only to protect employees but as a tool for retention.

"We tell them it's not only for employees, it's to protect the entire family," says Bruce Ries, vice president of corporate sales for the Emergency Alert Network.

ICE catches fire

ICE got off to a blazing start in England less than a year ago, when British paramedic Bob Brotchie hatched the idea in Cambridge. In his scheme, all individuals would program their cell phones with the numbers of family members or friends they wished contacted in the event a medical emergency. The numbers would be programmed in the phone's directory under "ICE," as in "ICE 1," "ICE 2," etc., or "ICE Joe" or "ICE Jane."

ICE reached a tipping point last July when the terrorist bombing of the London subway system stoked new public safety concerns. In a blink, U.K. telecom giant Vodaphone was backing an initiative to disseminate the safety protocol to the masses. Soon politicians and public safety officials caught the fever stateside.

ICE had swept around the world before some cogent criticisms - and at least one painfully obvious oversight - caught up with it.

"In an accident, your wireless phone could be rendered inoperable," warns Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA - The Wireless Association. For that reason, Farren says, ICE can complement existing means of communicating emergency medical information, such as a Medic-Alert bracelet, but never replace it.

"Wireless is a tremendous safety tool," Farren continues. "There's roughly 225,000 9-1-1 calls placed from wireless phones every day."

But a cell phone programmed with ICE is "not necessarily the best medium" for communicating critical medical information. "It certainly isn't a panacea. You might not want to use ICE to replace your other established forms. It's an additional tool."

Last year, the global security firm Vance made "Don't solely rely on cell phones" one of its six personal safety tips.

Some first responders anticipate other obstacles to applying a cell phone-based ICE. "It goes against the training and experience of paramedics to go fishing in a patient's pockets," says A.J. Heightman, editor of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services and a paramedic for three decades. "Their first priority is to treat the patient."

I.D. bling

Not long after ICE became ubiquitous in the U.K., Emergency Alert Network, a for-profit company specializing in emergency and safety products and services, improved and capitalized on the ICE concept. Founded by former Georgia state trooper John Craddock in 1998, the company was soon offering a commercial ICE service - www.icecontact.com - in the U.S.

Emergency Alert Network eliminated the pitfalls of the original cell phone model for ICE by externalizing the number. ICE members receive a wallet-sized plastic card, two key fobs to attach to key chains, backpacks, etc. and two decals, which cn be applied to a vehicle window, cellphone, iPod or Walkman, etc. Each piece of ICE paraphernalia bears an individual identification number and a toll-free number to the ICE call center.

First responders, police officers and ER personnel who call the toll-free number can obtain medical information on the wearer, and the call center will notify up to four designated emergency contacts of the wearer's situation.

The ICE database compiles critical medical information, including blood type, allergies and pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, epilepsy, asthma, etc., that directly might affect the wearer's treatment. To make this information available, ICE members must sign a waiver of their rights under the Health Information Portability and Privacy Act.

Employer pitch

The company has had such good luck selling the ICE service to individual consumers, it is now marketing to businesses as the kind of voluntary benefit that strengthens employer-employee bonds. ICE representatives meet with top human resources executives and put some "family friendly" English on their pitch.

"We talk about good will, we talk about retention," Ries says. "We tell them it's not just for employees, it's a benefit for the total family."

Employers pay $15 annually per employee membership. Each employee may have up to five people on the membership, all of whom receive the full ICE treatment. For example, an employer with 100 workers would pay $1,500 per year to cover up to 500 people. ICE officials have been touring the country, attending conferences and educating the public on the benefits of the service.

Delivering bad news

Despite the growing popularity of ICE, experts question whether call center operators have the sensitivity training and experience to communicate with people dealing with trauma, particularly when delivering the ultimate bad news: death.

"Those that make those calls for ICE better be prepared to address the emotional fallout of those they are informing, and knowing how to best make that serioius injury or death notification is critical," says Dr. Mark Lerner, a clinical psychologist who is president of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

Medical professionals often lack the appropriate training to notify family members of the serious injury or death of a loved one. Thus emergency physicians have earned a certain notoriety in hospitals around the country for passing on the responsibility for death notifications to residents.

"That first communication with the family is all-important," Lerner says. "The mechanism with which you share that information regarding injury or perhaps worse, the loss of life, will stay with those people forever."

How well the information is or is not imparted can have broad implications for the workplace, Lerner says.

"If you don't address the emotional fallout of traumatic events that impact people in the workplace, what you're going to have is a number of employees that are going to be filing disability claims, workman's comp claims, absenteeism," he says.

"In the same way we address the physical and safety needs of people we should also address the psychological needs of people in traumatic situations."

Still, at $15 per membership, the ICE service may prove to be worth every penny, whether or not call center staffers have the bedside manner to deliver dire news. It's a small price to pay, especially when the life you save just may be your employee's. - S.D.

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