Can a Personal Alarm Protect You?
By Stephanie Thurott
If you’re living through domestic violence or recently escaped an abuser, you might consider a personal alarm. These small alarms can attach to your keychain, purse or backpack and when their panic button is activated, they emit a loud, constant alarm, generally 120 to 130 decibels. The noise is intended to alert people nearby to your need for help.
Along with survivors, others who might find personal alarms helpful include stalking victims, children (who may walk to and from school on their own), college students, seniors, security workers, hikers or night shift workers, for example.
There are plenty of personal alarms on the market with features like these:
- Built-in flashlights, $9.74
- Stylish designs, $14.99
- Multi-packs you can share with friends, nine for $29.99
- Lipstick designs that camouflage their real function, $9.99
- Teddy bears for children, $6.99
And with prices starting at just $2.50, cost shouldn’t be a barrier for owning one. But do they work?
“They are just one tool in a toolbox,” says Sarah Jones, a former agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. Jones spent a large part of her military career dealing with sexual assault and abuse cases. She’s also a survivor of sexual trauma and domestic abuse.
Jones says the problem with personal alarms is that they largely depend on bystanders for help. And people don’t always help, often because they assume someone else will step in.
“I don’t want women to have a false sense of security when it comes to feeling as though people around them are going to naturally intervene,” she says.
Ask People to Be Accountable
Alarms can be useful if people nearby feel accountable. Jones recommends survivors inform neighbors that they have an alarm. “Say, ‘I’ve got this device and if you hear it go off, I’m in grave danger. Call 911 and if you can, try to intervene.’ That makes people much more likely to follow through for you.”
Curious if it’s safe to get involved as a bystander? Read “5 Ways to Intervene When You Suspect Domestic Violence” for more information.
Jones says survivors can also use the alarm in a crowded place. In that scenario, she suggests looking someone in the eye and saying, “Help me” so there’s no confusion that the alarm is malfunctioning on accident.
Another positive of personal alarms: They might briefly confuse an abuser, buying a survivor some time to run, prepare to fight or seek help. On the other hand, she says that setting off the alarm may enrage your abuser: “They could overpower you, take the alarm and be even more angry.”
Staying safe requires a multifaceted approach, Jones says. If you choose to carry a personal alarm, she recommends these additional tips for staying safe:
Have a Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency (PACE) Plan. Jones gives the example of grocery shopping with her four kids: “It’s a chaotic nightmare. There are all of these distractions and I’m experiencing cognitive overload.” Still, she’s prepared to keep herself and her children safe in a threat or emergency.
- Primary plan: leave the way they came in
- Secondary plan: leave through an employee exit in the back of the store
- Contingency plan: find a back office where they can hide
- Emergency plan: use her firearm, which she concedes won’t work for everyone. Most people might look for another place to hide instead.
Take a Self-Defense Class. You’ll learn to protect yourself and know what your limitations are. “More often than not, women in these classes find they are stronger than they thought. It reassures them that they can put up a fight, or at least stall the attack,” she says.
Jones recommends jujitsu, and suggests taking a class at least once a week. She points out that many places offer kids’ classes—having your kids take a class when you do can solve child-care issues.
Connect with Your Friends and Family Members.“The trademark of abusers is to isolate the victim. The more you can engage with friends, family members, and neighbors, the better,” Jones says. “It might be embarrassing but if they have even a basic understanding of what’s going on, they can watch out for you.”
Let a friend or family member track your location on your phone and tell them where you’re going, so they can check in with you if you don’t make it there in a certain amount of time.
Practice Situational Awareness. “A lot of women multitask to an extreme level. We’re focused on so many things that we fail to notice whatever is out of place around us. It’s about taking the time to think, ‘This looks out of place. Why does it look out of place?’ and assessing whether it’s something of concern or not,” she says.
If you’re being followed, drive to a crowded area or a police or fire station before calling for help, or exiting your vehicle if it’s safe.
Think Like an Abuser. “You’re going to know more about how they think than anyone. You’re the subject of the harassment and intimidation,” she says. “Understand where they’re likely to show up and what they’re likely to do when they show up. You can plan around that to the best of your ability.”
Make Your Home Safer. Consider an affordable home security system and use a Ring doorbell to monitor your entrance. If that’s too costly, you can buy inexpensive fake cameras that are good deterrents, Jones says. Keep the outside of your property well-lit, and consider getting a dog.
“Safety is not a passive thing, it’s an active thing. You can’t focus on safety part of the time and expect to be safe,” Jones says. “But it’s empowering. It’s about making yourself more secure and rebuilding your confidence after it’s been taken away from you.”