How Long Should Emergency Call Systems Last?

Forever.  Not really, but that is probably the only answer any buyer wants to hear.  These are technically advanced systems, so a multi-decade expectation is probably not realistic anymore.  That kind of thinking is a throwback from the days that emergency call systems were nothing more than a light bulb and a switch.

“It’s just not right that after just buying your systems 12 years ago we should have to spend money to upgrade them to the latest and greatest.  The whole emergency call industry has us bent over a barrel.  We have to have these systems, and you force us to upgrade them.”  — Actual conversation with the CEO of a major senior living provider and long term client.  His expectations are common, but not realistic.

So what is a realistic time frame?  And what should senior living operators expect for an End of Life process.  This article will attempt to answer those to questions and others.  I am running a risk here by shattering the dream of some buyers who genuinely think emergency call systems should last for 20+ years (and never need service).  However, candid discussion, and setting realistic expectations is how Tel-Tron has been in business for 65 years and why we still have our first ever senior living customer as a client.  Here it goes:

Product Life Cycle

Senior living operators should expect to get 10 years of performance out of an emergency call system.**  I star this statement because their are many mitigating circumstances that will extend this time period.  But let’s assume for sake of this discussion that no changes or upgrades are made to the system at all during its life.  Why only 10 years?  It isn’t the hardware.

Using rugged design philosophy, level III manufacturing techniques, and high quality components (all of which Tel-Tron does) will result in a system that will function in a perfect, temperature controlled, never touched by a human being environment  for 20-30 years.  We just replaced an old Tel-Tron system at Shellpoint Village that had been installed and working for over 25 years.  It is not the hardware that gives out and requires replacement.

Sure, sometimes components become obsolete and a replacement needs to be sourced. And, occasionally new technology is invented and wipes out an entire design methodology.  This makes continued manufacturing difficult, but won’t cause the system you already purchased to suddenly quit.  Just because they invented high definition TV doesn’t mean your old set will all of a sudden quit working.  That’s Murphy’s law, which is out of human control.  But these and other issues do relate to the primary reason products become obsolete and manufacturers issue “End of Life” notices.  Manufacture-ability and Supportability.

MicroScan System - Introduced in 1982

Manufacture-ability – If new components or technology is invented, the cost of continuing to manufacture the old way eventually becomes prohibitive.  For example, in an older Tel-Tron product we used an EEPROM chip that was less than $1 each.  Today, that same component is $25.  In other cases, it isn’t a matter of expense.  The part is simply unavailable.

Supportability – Take the EEPROM chip example above.  At some point, Tel-Tron was forced to design a new circuit board using a different EEPROM chip, and was required to write new firmware to support the new EEPROM chip.  At the same time we made a few other improvements and released a new product version.  At that instant, we were now supporting two versions of the same product.  In the product design world, that is called legacy product support.  The problem is that while the two products do the same thing (and because we’re good, the new one is also backwards compatible), repair of the old version is not feasible.  Over the course of a decade this process can repeat itself several times and at some point, it is simply too costly to maintain multiple versions of the same product.  This same level of complexity ripples throughout the organization.

Technical support, installation, customer service – even sales – all need to stay aware of product versions and capabilities.  When the weight of maintaining an multi-version, outdated product line is heavier than designing a new platform from scratch, End of Life announcement can’t be far away. Senior living operators deal with this issue all the time in their business.  The product in their world is the physical plant (the building) itself.  How many times have operators looking to grow their business had to make the build/buy decision.  It’s the same concept.

Think of the complexity of owning a senior living building that was built in multiple phases, expansions and refurbishments, over the course of 20 years.  Different electrical systems, wiring standards, wall construction, fire supression systems, hallway widths, etc.  The list is endless.  Every once in a while the decision is made to demo the building and start over.  It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.  Or maybe, like in the case of the Tel-Tron building, entire system are replaced.  We needed a new HVAC unit.  It was so difficult to retrofit to the old ductwork, we ripped out all the ceilings and replaced everything.  Sometimes a new platform is required. Their is no way to avoid an occasional End Of Life event.

Instead, we should focus on how long a product should last from time of purchase until End Of Life, and how the transition handled.  These two areas are a matter of corporate policy and reflect the character of the organization and its leadership.  And…a subject for a future blog post.

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