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Ask Help Desk: Can an Apple Watch replace a wearable medical alert device?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/8/2021 Heather Kelly
The Washington Post's Help Desk team answers your technology questions. The Washington Post's Help Desk team answers your technology questions.

Have you’ve ever wondered about the best way to call for help if you fall? If there’s a better way to search on Google? Or if you can legally capture a stranger’s drone and back over it with your car until it’s a broken pile of metal and wires?

Welcome to the Help Desk’s first round of answers to all your most pressing technology questions.

When we launched our technology Help Desk a few weeks ago, we asked you to hit us with your tech problems. We received hundreds of messages about every tech topic under the sun. Once a week, we are going to pull out our favorites and do our best to offer you practical guidance and help.

To keep this fun and helpful, we want to keep hearing from you. Whether it’s an ethical issue, off the wall question or tech topic you just don’t think is talked about enough.

Tech to detect falling: Is Apple Watch with fall protection a safe or reasonable replacement for standard “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” devices/services?

Pat Belfer, Mass.

Millions of older adults fall every year — more than 1 in 4 people over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It sounds minor, but as we age, a routine spill becomes more complicated and can result in traumatic brain injuries, fractured hips and other serious injuries. That created a market for medical alert devices decades ago that is still going strong, including simple wearable buttons that can contact an emergency dispatcher.

Enter Apple. The company makes the Apple Watch, a jam-packed smartwatch that is part entertainment, part communication — and increasingly part health device. In 2018, the company added a fall detection feature that uses the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope to detect when the wearer falls down. It was automatically activated for users over 65, but the age was later lowered to 55. It can be turned off.

The Apple Watch faces its toughest challenge yet: Grandma and Grandpa

So can it replace the old-fashioned button systems? That depends largely on your own comfort level, medical situation and tech savvy. First and foremost, ask your doctor. How concerned are they about your health and falls, how often do they happen, what does your doctor recommend?

The Apple Watch has some advantages, such as the ability to automatically alert emergency contacts in addition to 911. If you’re already an Apple Watch user, it’s one less thing to remember to put on, and you don’t need to learn something new. It also includes a number of extra health tracking features. However, for many older people, the Apple Watch screen can be small and difficult to navigate. And if you’ve never used one before, it’s a lot more complicated to learn from scratch than an alert button. It will also need to be charged daily. Another difference is that many medical alert systems are monitored by a 24/7 dispatch center, while Apple Watches act as a way to call 911 directly.

Apple will be the first to tell you its smartwatch is not a medical device. That means it isn’t FDA approved and shouldn’t be used to replace medical equipment or visits to the doctor. Two of its features — notifications of irregular heartbeats and the electrocardiogram feature, which records the electrical signals from your heart — do have FDA clearance, which is a different category.

How to get the most out of your smartwatch

Searching smarter: I prefer to get search results from only the past year. Is there a way to have my browser, or any browser, default to results from the past year rather than changing the option each time? Thank you!

Suzanne Kelly, Long Island

The Internet is vast, overwhelming and filled with a lot of useless clutter. Most search engines give a few basic tools to try to narrow the fire hose, including searching during specific time periods. On your computer in Google, type in your search and hit enter. Then select Tools and click on the word “Any Time,” which should appear with a small arrow next to it. A drop down menu will show a range of options, including searching the last week, last year or a custom window of time. The settings are nearly identical on DuckDuckGo, which we recommend you add on top of your browser to minimize tracking.

To keep these settings, you can first do a search the way you like for something fun such as “dogs.” Bookmark that URL and click on it when you want to look something up. You’ll just need to type in your new terms and hit enter. Or you can bookmark this custom Google landing page.

Ethics of destroying a drone: A while back I was out on my deck when a drone came right over my head and paused there for several seconds. I was quite annoyed by this occurrence and swore that if it ever happened again, I would catch the thing in a butterfly net and take it into my garage and back my car over it.

My question for you: would that be legal since this was an intrusion into my private property? I know in some states it’s OK to SHOOT PEOPLE who break into one’s house …

Mary L. Sullivan, Londonderry, N.H.

This question is an absolute delight, so thank you for that. The answer is a firm no. You should not catch strange drones in butterfly nets and off them with your car. But let’s unpack why, because I absolutely understand the inclination and would also feel a wave of anger if an unknown drone was in my personal space.

First there is the practical issue: Can you catch a drone with a butterfly net? The drone itself would have to be on the smaller side, no more than 8 to 9 feet off the ground and hovering in one place, but if that were the case it seems doable.

Now the legal issue. I reached out to Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida-based lawyer specializing in drone issues who is also a commercial pilot and flight instructor. He says your particular question touches on a messy number of laws, jurisdictions and issues. For example, interfering with an aircraft is technically a federal crime, recording with a drone touches on First Amendment issues, being near your home gets into property law and your local law enforcement officials may not have the power to go after the drone’s owner but could possibly arrest you for destruction of property.

He says that’s exactly the case with a man who shot down a stranger’s drone that included expensive sensor equipment. The shooter is currently being charged with a second-degree felony, Rupprecht said.

Your best bet is to try to figure out who owns the drone and speak to them or ask local law enforcement to speak to them (which is likely the most they can do). There should be a small identifying number on the side of the drone, but it’s likely too small to see so you could try following the drone back to the person who is flying it. Also contact your local FAA office, though Rupprecht says the agency largely lacks the resources and tools to enforce minor infractions. “Realistically, the FAA and law enforcement aren’t going to do much,” he said.

Contacts gone wrong: Finally, one reader wrote in to ask about Apple contacts. After syncing multiple devices to iCloud, she noticed that all of her contacts appeared three times.

Hundreds of duplicate entries sounds like a nightmare problem to try to solve manually, but luckily there is an option for automating it. You’ll need to do this on your Mac since the features do not appear to exist on Apple mobile devices.

But before we start tinkering with all your carefully collected phone numbers and addresses, let’s be extra paranoid and make a backup. Open the Contacts app on your Mac, go to File in the top navigation bar, select Export and export as Contacts Archive. Next, make sure you’ve clicked on All Contacts in your address book. Go to Card in the top menu and click Look For Duplicates. It will warn you that it is going to merge duplicate contacts, which means it will try to combine all three entries for Cousin Terry into one entry without losing information. Click the Merge button.

Go through and do a spot check to make sure it worked and that you didn’t lose anything important. Keep that backup file you saved just in case you can’t find something like an address in an entry one day.

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