SMS Messaging vs Pagers for Emergency Services

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SMS Messaging for emergency services

The once popular pager used to be a familiar sight  – not just amongst all kinds of emergency personnel but also anybody who was anybody in the world of business. With the huge popularity of SMS messaging and today’s incredible pace of technological development, however, there is no doubt an increasing number of people who would not even know what this once iconic device even was or why it was ever used.

The pager has been at the centre of communication for emergency services for decades – but does it still have a future? In this article, we take a look at the use of SMS versus pager communications between emergency personnel and their organisations.

A brief history of the pager

The paging system was created long before the mobile phone or SMS message had come into existence. The first telephone pager system was patented by the mobile wireless communication pioneer Alfred Gross in 1949. Within a year, the system had been adopted by doctors in the New York City area. It quickly became used amongst a wider range of medical and emergency establishments as a fast and reliable means of communicating with personnel wherever they might be.

With the onset of mobile technology, the pager has substantially declined in popularity. Motorola announced the end of production of new pagers in 2001, and the industry’s value declined by approximately 60% between 2003 – 2008 alone.

In February this year, Vodafone, one of the last two pager service providers in the UK, agreed to sell its business to rival Capita. This move leaves just one pager service provider in the country. Despite this, there are still around 1,000 organisational customers reliant on the service.

The Shift to SMS

In the last couple of decades, text messaging has taken centre stage when it comes to short message communications. All mobile phones can receive simple text messages, eliminating the need to buy special hardware (i.e. pagers) or pay for expensive contracts. The ubiquity of SMS messaging also means the ability to reach far more people than you could with just the official issued pagers within the organisation.

One particular advantage of SMS messaging over paging is the two-way nature of communications and the ease with which the receiver can respond immediately via the same device. Improved network coverage and developments such as 3G and 4G have also played a part in shaping the communications environment, with more and more areas receiving reliable mobile coverage with a reasonable signal strength.

Despite this, paging has remained the favoured method of communication for emergency staff. In order to understand why this is, it is necessary to look at where pagers are typically used.

Where pagers matter

There are some areas where pagers really do matter, and this is the main reason why it remains a primary form of communication for emergency services through to the present day. In the hospital environment, for example, there are two factors driving their continued use. Firstly, the mobile signal tends to be poor or even non-existent in many hospital complex buildings due to their construction. This can have a major effect on whether SMS communications are received in a timely manner. In addition, pagers are better suited to areas where sensitive medical equipment is in use as they are less likely to cause interference.

In rural areas, pager cover tends to be better than the often weak or even non-existent mobile coverage, meaning that emergency personnel still rely on paging. This is particularly true of remote areas and other areas of poor coverage and is one of the reasons they are favoured by mountain rescue teams, lifeboat crews, firefighters and others.

It is important to understand that pagers, unlike mobile phones, are actually radio receivers. They make use of satellite communications as opposed to terrestrial mobile communications. This means that they are more resilient in the event of a disaster and not vulnerable to disruption as a result of network overload, as has been seen in various events over recent years. It is this aspect of their technology which makes them essential to police and security personnel, as well as emergency teams at critical hospital locations.

SMS as an additional channel

Given the very different nature of paging in comparison to SMS messaging, it is clear that SMS messaging should not be seen as an alternative to paging. It can, however, if used strategically, provide a valuable tool to support emergency communications when used alongside paging.

Although the open rate of SMS messages is reported to be as high as 98% within three minutes of receipt, in a true emergency scenario this is simply not enough. Evidence shows that an emergency worker is significantly more likely to read a pager alert than a text message – perhaps because by its very nature the pager is used for a single purpose and an instant response is expected of them.

Where SMS messaging appears to offer the greatest benefit for emergency personnel is in its ability to provide a greater amount of information than that sent via pager, along with an interface that makes reading such information much easier. It may also include links to further information in the form of map locations, images or other data files that are relevant to the scenario. Clearly, this could have benefits if we imagine the scenario of a police officer being alerted of a suspect or a rescuer needing a location to be provided.

Viewed from this perspective, the two technologies working together offer an opportunity to ensure that emergency personnel are both alerted and informed quickly and effectively.

Adapt and survive

In the constantly evolving world of technology, the ability to adapt and be flexible is key to survival. Just as this is true in the world of commerce and marketing, it is also true of our emergency services who are under constant pressure to offer modern, effective solutions to the challenges they face daily. With communication playing such a vital role in this sector it seems logical that with the reliability and functionality it offers today, SMS messaging should be seriously considered as part of the emergency communications strategy.

Perhaps one noteworthy example of such adaptation is the UK’s emergency SMS service. The service, part of the Next Generation Text Service (NGT), provides eligible users with the facility to send 999 messages by SMS instead of the telephone. At present, the service is limited to registered users who are unable to make voice calls because they have a hearing loss or a speech impairment. The service allows them to use SMS messaging to make a call for an ambulance, fire/rescue, coast guard or police. Whilst there are currently no plans to offer the service to any users beyond this group, it is a great example of SMS messaging offering real value in the emergency services sphere.

At FastSMS, we offer bulk SMS messaging services with tier 1 delivery routes at some of the lowest prices in the UK. We also offer 24-hour support from a dedicated and knowledgeable team. We guarantee that you will always be able to reach somebody who can help you and never get stuck in an automated system.

If you are in the emergency services or medical sector and would like to know more about how our SMS messaging solutions can help, call now on 0800 954 5305 or click here for other ways to contact us.


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