The Cambrian

Medical-alert pendants a holiday gift from Cambria resident

Bob Kelley, left, hands a Freedom Alert medical pendant to the columnist’s husband, Richard Tanner.
Bob Kelley, left, hands a Freedom Alert medical pendant to the columnist’s husband, Richard Tanner.

On this Thanksgiving and every day, of course I’m thankful for family, friends and freedom … relatively good health, luck and living conditions … and the people who keep us safe or save us when we’re not.

But today, I’m especially thankful that, through Bob Kelley and Cambria’s Anonymous Neighbors, I’ve increased the chance that two lives could be saved here someday.

The icing on the cake is that in the process, I also made someone I love safer.

You could do it, too, for someone you love plus someone you may not know at all.

And wouldn’t that make a grand holiday gift?

Bob Kelley

Kelley, 76, was raised in a hardscrabble neighborhood of San Francisco’s south side and learned early to help others. No matter how little his family of four had, someone else had less, and the Kelleys shared.

He became a star athlete (and one-time “ball dude” for the San Francisco Giants). Kelley said he eventually earned a master’s degree in special populations and doctoral degree in management, always with a focus on sports, kids and the aged.

Among his many other volunteering duties, Kelley became a fervent advocate for the “buddy system,” in which friends pledge to check in with each other every day, just to make sure everybody’s OK.


Kelley feels “buddies” are especially essential in areas like Cambria, where, the 2010 census found 804 people living alone, many of them senior citizens with health concerns.

Then he learned about two Cambrians who live alone, who had fallen and were unable to call for help. One injured senior wasn’t discovered for a day and a half, and the other lay there unfound for three days!

Keeping those people safer turned into a powerful motivator for Kelley. He became determined to provide free medical-alert equipment for anybody in Cambria who might need emergency help but be unable to call to get it.

He took his idea to Cambria FireSafe Focus Group and Cambria’s Anonymous Neighbors (CAN), which were enthusiastic.

(PS: Even if you’re not in Cambria, you can donate to Kelley’s program or start a similar one in your own community.)

CAN now is the nonprofit umbrella under which Kelley pays for the program with donations and grants. He manages the entire program, with occasional help from friend Paul Schmidt.

After extensive research, Kelley selected the Freedom Alert devices and, with CAN’s nonprofit status, the manufacturer authorized him to buy them wholesale.

Free, free, free

In Kelley’s program:

▪  The rechargeable Freedom Alert Emergency Response System unit is free. The three-quarter-inch-thick alert pendant is about half the size around as a business card. The device can be worn on a lanyard around the neck, on a wrist strap or a belt clip — all included, as are a backup rechargeable battery and the control unit that’s connected to a landline phone and is the two-way communication link between the pendant and 911 emergency dispatchers.

▪  And, there’s no $20-to-$30-a-month charge for the 911 connection and the protection the Freedom Alert provides!

That protection is especially valuable for someone who lives alone and is at risk for a medical or other emergency, including a fall.

How Freedom Alert works

The units use digitally enhanced, cordless telecommunications technology (like DECT portable phones) to alert 911 dispatchers that the wearer has a problem.

The connection between the water-resistant pendant and the communication base works within about 600 yards, plus or minus, depending on home construction and electronic interference.

Within seconds after the wearer presses and holds the pendant’s blue button, a 911 dispatcher responds loudly, “Hello, Ms. ____. Do you have an emergency?”

After determining what’s needed, the dispatcher sends the necessary responders.

This is important: If nobody answers the dispatcher’s call, an ambulance is sent.

(Sometimes, the call is the DECT equivalent of a cell-phone “butt-dial.” One 90-something man did that recently in Cambria while he was loading things into his car, and was astonished when the ambulance arrived in his driveway! No harm, no foul.)

Expanding his “buddy system” concept, Kelley calls each of his Freedom Alert wearers once a month to make sure they and their units are OK. If there’s no answer, he calls again in six hours. If there’s still no answer, he calls a friend identified earlier by the senior as someone who could go to the house and check on the wearer.


Kelley hosted a sold-out cioppino dinner in June, which netted $4,600, which paid for the first 27 Freedom Alert sets. He delivered those promptly to the seniors who now wear them.

Recently, Kelley received donations from the Cambria Community Council and Santa Rosa Catholic Church (Father Mark wears one of the devices and is a steady, fervent supporter of the program).

Kelley continues to ferret out funds from the Lions Club and other service groups, nonprofits, individuals and anybody else who hears about his Freedom Alert program for Cambrians.


More than 40 people have received the units so far. All but six of the recipients have been women.

Kelley’s program has already saved a couple of lives, he said. One patient was a 93-year-old fall victim with hip and elbow injuries; the other had a stroke, and was able to press the button but not talk.

Paramedics arrived within minutes of both alerts.

Rosemary Gallagher, 65, has been blind since the age of 32, and a Type 1 diabetic since she was 7. She’s fallen many times. In separate falls, Gallagher broke an ankle and both arms, among other injuries, and she had to have back surgery.

She calls her Freedom Alert “a lifesaver when I need it. It’s making me a lot more careful, trying to be more aware of what my situation is” and how stable she is.

Multiple sclerosis patient Kathleen Patrick, 66, falls “almost every day,” she said. She said the device “makes me feel a lot safer. Before that, I was afraid to get out of my chair,” in part because the right side of her body doesn’t work well, “and if I fall on that side, I can’t push up with that arm and get the body moving.”

Her Freedom Alert “doesn’t keep me from falling down, but at least I know that if I do fall, I’ll be able to get help.”

Husband Richard

After Kelley described his medic-alert program, I immediately thought of Husband Richard, a recovering stroke patient with COPD and heart disease.

Sure, I could buy a Freedom Alert unit from Walmart, but I also wanted to be part of Kelley’s dream to provide the service for free to each Cambrian who needs it.

So, the Tanners accepted the free pendant and ongoing service, but I’ve donated to the program the $160 cost, so Kelley would have the money to buy another device for someone else.

Other people can do the same thing.

That includes you.

Think about it: This holiday season, rather than giving more unneeded, unwanted socks or shirts, perfume, gadgets or widgets to those seniors you love, what about wrapping up a health safety net that won’t cost them anything other than the commitment to wear it?

After all, what’s better than the gift of life?.

About CAN

To donate, send a check made out to “CAN” and earmarked for “Freedom Alert Emergency Pendants,” to Cambria’s Anonymous Neighbors, P.O. Box 1797, Cambria CA 93428. For details, call Kelley at 927-3407.

CAN’s volunteers assist residents in Cambria and San Simeon in times of need, providing essential services on a short-term basis in times of illness, recuperation or in special circumstances. Among the services provided are transportation to nonemergency medical appointments countywide, loans of hospital equipment, food distribution, home visitation and/or phone calls to shut-ins, and more. CAN is supported solely by donations and grants.