Pagers vs. SMS Messaging for Emergency Services

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Pagers vs. SMS Messaging for Emergency Services

For decades, all kinds of emergency personnel relied on pagers to communicate with each other and their organisations. Pagers come in different types, but most only deliver a very short alphanumeric message, or sometimes a voice recording. The benefit of the pagers was that you could almost instantly contact someone to let them know they needed to check in by returning a call to a certain number. The system was created long before the days of mobile phones or even text messaging.

But in the last decade text messaging has taken centre stage when it comes to short message communications. All mobile phones can receive simple text messages which means there’s no need to buy special hardware (i.e. pagers) or pay for expensive contracts. The ubiquity of the SMS messaging also means the ability to reach far more people than you could with just the official issued pagers within the organisation.

But is SMS messaging really a good substitute for the well-known and reliable pager? Let’s take a look.

A recent study of US paediatricians showed they preferred SMS messages over pagers. The margin was small, 27% to 25%. But it was the first time standard text messaging had overtaken pagers as the preferred method of communication. It’s a trend that is likely to continue to grow.

An article in the Health Services Journal pointed out several issues with traditional pagers. It claimed that few hospitals actually know how many pagers they actually have (or how many have been lost) and continue to pay for the services because they aren’t able to account for all the devices. Also the messages are hard to audit or track unless there is a manual record of the event. The article also pointed to a study from 2007 that said some percentage of events where patients suffered harm were pager related. But that it was hard to know exactly how much because of the lack of consistent record keeping.

SMS messaging takes care of the need for automatic record keeping. Most systems (our own NetMessenger included) keep records of every message sent or received. These archived messages can easily be recorded into a database at a hospital or other location to keep for investigations or privacy related enquiries should any issues arise.

Mobile phones too are generally easier to track than pagers. First, many personnel use their own personal phones so they aren’t likely to lose them “intentionally”. Studies have shown that over 80% of people like to keep their smartphones within arm’s reach at all times. And if an organisation decides to issue its own mobiles to use for work related messaging, it is possible to trace them if they are used. Also some models come with features designed to locate lost phones – like Apple’s Find My Phone. This type of feature could save organisations significant money since they wouldn’t have to pay for services on devices that are no longer in use (like they do for lost pagers).

But can SMS messaging function as well when it comes to notifying people of an emergency?

SMS messages sent via Tier 1 routes reach their destination quickly, almost always in less than six seconds. The issue becomes more about whether the person will notice they’ve received a message or not. Here again statistics show that 97% of messages get read and people read their messages often and quickly. But in an emergency that percentage might not be enough. However it seems likely that emergency personnel on call would pay as much attention to their mobile messages as they would to a pager notification.

Though admittedly if the mobile is being used for personal and work messaging it may be hard for the person to distinguish or recognise an emergency text out of all the ones they get. But whether the person on call is using SMS or a pager, some responsibility lies with them to ensure they notice when they get the message.

Technically speaking, SMS messages are able to meet the requirements for emergency services. But pagers probably still have value as a backup method for emergency communication. In large scale disasters, cellular networks are often overloaded or unavailable. Pager networks could be a perfect backup notification for emergency personnel when off duty or off-site. Used this way, a hospital or other organisation could reduce their inventory of pagers so only critical personnel have them at appropriate times in case of a major emergency when cellular networks are down. Other communications could be managed via SMS messaging, saving them money, time and offering convenience to emergency personnel.

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