Pin-point location

Cause for Alarm

The lower cost of consumer GPS and GSM technology has led to an abundance of personal safety devices hitting shops. But are they actually effective?

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The world can be a very dangerous place. It's not due to acts of terrorism, or tsunamis or any major natural or political threat. It's because we are human and therefore vulnerable. We need to be protected from ourselves and from each other.

At least... that's the impression you get from the sheer number of personal safety devices (PSDs) currently flooding the market. A new device designed to prevent you getting lost or to raise an alarm if you're under attack seems to be launched every week. Last month, after three years in development, the Protective Fashion Object hit the high streets. This is the first GPS security bracelet that not only aims to keep the wearer 'safe', but also tries to look good too.

This designer jewellery item contains GPS and GSM positioning technology developed by engineers at Jas Gripen fighter jet navigation systems. Football manager Sir Alex Ferguson was among the product's financial backers. When pulled, the bracelet sends an SMS to three chosen persons with a link to a webmap of the wearer's exact location and live movements. It works anywhere in the world where there is GPS and GSM coverage.

PSDs aren't confined to a few western cities, either. They are increasingly being sold as global guardians. Skyguard has been providing UK personal safety systems for over a decade but has just moved into the travellers' market, creating Skyguard International to provide instant back-up across 36 countries. Travellers can activate the emergency Skyguard International service using a device the size of a key-fob and the smallest GPS alarm of its kind, which can be discreetly attached to keys, a belt or worn on a lanyard.

Skyguard's service also runs as an app on a BlackBerry, with the handset's side key acting as the alarm button. Alarms containing the user's location and identity go directly to Skyguard's Incident Management Centre in the UK, where controllers coordinate a response by summoning the national emergency services of the country in question, and contacting the victim's relatives or employers. The service can also provide personal information through an online portal, such as medical conditions, medications taken and even a photo, which can be passed to the emergency services.

It's ironic to note that, as travel becomes safer and safer, more and more devices are developed to counter potential threats. Etón's Axis is a new emergency survival gadget, packed with everything you might need to get you out of trouble - a flashing beacon to alert others, an emergency mobile telephone dump charger for Smartphones and USB devices. Also included are an AM/FM radio, alarm clock, LED torch – all powered by an internal battery or hand-powered crank handle.

The SOS Rescue Me app is yet another example of how help may be accessed if you find yourself in a sticky situation far away from home. Its purpose is, according to its Norwegian inventor Steinar Bredesen, to combat the "global epidemic in personal safety". If you feel under threat anywhere in the world, a single click on this app on your mobile phone alerts your best friend or closest relative by SMS and Facebook, giving them your GPS location. The app also supports faking incoming calls, calling emergency numbers and snapping witness photos directly to your Facebook profile. As with all similar devices, the presumption is that the only safe people are those far away at home, often hundreds of miles distant. Approaching a stranger nearby for help is not considered an option.

Safety or sales?

There are some who argue that the epidemic isn't in safety, but in sales pitches. The American import Mommy I'm Here Child Locator, now on sale in the UK, is marketed as "the very latest innovation in child safety technology". The locator, shaped like a little plastic bear, is a wireless safety system which uses its own radio frequency to help track a child up to 45m away. The product comes in two parts; a parent keeps the simple key-ring beeper and the tot gets a cute bear which attaches to their shoe, belt or wrist. If the parent loses sight of their little one they simply need to press the button on their key ring transmitter to wirelessly set off the 90db alarm on the child's teddy bear transmitter.

"Over 725,000 children are reported lost every year in the US while shopping or out with their parents '.This leads to over 52,000 real abductions!" warns the packaging. "It doesn't matter how good a parent you are. It has happened to all of us, we look away for a second and in an instant, a child has vanished. Our heart races and our stomach sinks ' That's why you need Mommy I'm Here!"

In fact, it's estimated that fewer than around 500 children are abducted in the UK each year, and over a quarter of these by someone they know. This figure has remained steady for many years.

But that hasn't prevented a proliferation of danger-defying devices being produced for concerned parents. Me Finder, for example, is a digital wristband shaped like a monkey or flower, and stores up to five phone numbers. Boardbug comes in two watch-like components, one for the parent, the other for the child. The manufacturer claims Boardbug makes it easier for parents to keep tabs on their children by bleeping if they stray out of a pre-set range. The maximum permissible wander before an alarm is activated is 20m.

Many experienced family travellers argue that low-tech leads to the highest safety. "We've found simple wristbands work a treat when going somewhere really busy – a mobile number is all that's needed on there and if they get lost it's easily resolved – unless your phone is dead in which case find Lost Property," says Joanne Elliott of Away with the Kids, a travel directory for families. There may also be nothing more dangerous than pressing a piece of the latest technology into your teenager's palm. One-third of street crimes on teenagers are attempts to steal mobile device, usually a phone or MP3 player.

Women too are targeted as being in desperate need of PSDs. Ila Safety is designed with this market in mind. "We've all heard too many harrowing stories of women of all ages being targeted by criminals when alone, especially in the dark winter months. When asked, most women admit to feeling uneasy on a regular basis, whether they're jogging in the park, commuting, staying in unfamiliar surroundings or simply crossing a deserted car park. Ila Safety has created a series of stylish safety accessories to boost the bearer's confidence every day," says the promotional material.

Ila Safety claims that when under threat, women often lose the ability to scream as fear-induced adrenaline courses through their bodies. Named after the Hindu goddess of speech, the alarms in the collection are designed to scream on the female victim's behalf in order to shock and disorientate any potential attacker or thief, and to attract attention. It unleashes 130 decibels on their unsuspecting target.

Risk assessment

But do any of these technologies actually make any of us any safer? Some psychologists argue that they might even put you in greater danger, as you suppress natural instincts and turn to a piece of kit instead of flight or fight.

"Many people now rely on their smartphones, sat-navs or other GPS devices to find their way around. All it takes is a flat battery or a mechanical fault to hobble your automated orientation aids. But when these fail us, and there's no one to ask for directions, there's a more natural way to navigate," says Tristan Gooley, world explorer and author of The Natural Navigator.

Gooley advocates developing your ability to rely upon your awareness and deduction. It's nothing much more than common sense. For example, Gooley points out that religious buildings and sacred sites have been laid out to give clues to direction. Christian churches are usually aligned west-east, with the main altar at the eastern end to face the sunrise, giving a simple clue to which way you're facing. In big cities, rush hour crowds can also point the way.

"Pacific navigators learned to follow the birds in their search of land. They quickly realised that while an individual bird can behave eccentrically, a pair – or even better a flock – will follow a pattern. The same is true of human beings. There is no point following an individual, you could end up anywhere. But following a crowd in the late afternoon will take you towards a station or other transport hub. In the mornings, walk against the flow to find these stations," says Gooley.

Nor should getting lost always be presented as a problem to be solved, but essential to the human condition. Some child psychologists argue that losing your way and taking risks is part of learning to grow up; relying on gadgets to do this for us curbs our development as independent adults.

It's also debated how accurately we are actually assessing the level of risk. Are we exaggerating the dangers we face, or is our fear backed up by hard facts? David Ropeik, Harvard lecturer and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts' says, "Research from diverse fields, and countless examples from the real world, have convincingly established that our perceptions of risk are an inextricable blend of fact and feeling, reason and gut reaction, cognition and intuition. No matter what the hard sciences may tell us the facts are about a risk, the social sciences tell us that our interpretation of those facts is ultimately subjective."

Compensating for perceived increased safety has also been raised as an issue. Are we more likely to take risks if we feel protected? With a PSD in our pocket, will we put ourselves in a situation we might otherwise avoid due to natural fear? As the number of different products available to us grows, we may be able to make an assessment. But already it seems a very little bit of risk may do us some good and teach us valuable skills. And a personal safety device, however high tech, might not necessarily help us keep safe, just make us feel safer. 

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