A couple of days ago, I received a press release that announced a name change for a trade association in the paging sector. Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to such an announcement. Then I got a call from the person who sent it, and after hearing the rationale for the change, I become intrigued enough that I agreed to chat with Roy Pottle, the president of the newly christened Critical Messaging Association, who also is the CEO of American Messaging, a Lewisville, Texas, provider of paging services.

Borrowing from the beloved American pundit and author Mark Twain, the first thing that Pottle wanted me to understand is that the rumors of the paging industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. As evidence, he pointed to the 3.5 million pagers that currently are in service in the U.S. But Pottle also acknowledged that the paging industry has evolved into something far different than what it used to be, primarily because of the advent of cellular-based voice and text services. Indeed, the industry’s focus today is on those sectors that still depend on fast, reliable, mission-critical messages — hence the name change. For the most part, those sectors are health care and public safety.

According to Pottle, paging still is the way to go in circumstances where the message has to be delivered without fail, because the paging infrastructure delivers messages simultaneously. In contrast, Pottle said cellular networks deliver messages sequentially, which can result in a delay of several minutes — an unacceptable gap in an emergency situation.

“Notifying someone using a smartphone is fine when time isn’t of the essence,” Pottle said. “But if you have 10,000 students on a university campus and there is a shooting, there is no way you can get messages to 10,000 students quickly — it would take 45 minutes. It just doesn’t work.”

In addition, cellular networks tend to be very unreliable during wide-scale emergencies, because the networks become overloaded or have been rendered inoperable by a manmade or natural disaster.

However, Pottle conceded that some people simply don’t want to carry a pager. So, his company has developed a thin-client application that can be downloaded to a smartphone. Many healthcare professionals who are using this app still carry pagers while on campus — in part because of the in-building coverage issues that cellular signals often experience — but use their smartphones when off-campus, he said.

After talking with Pottle, I began to think about the volunteer fire service, which traditionally has relied heavily on pagers but increasingly has turned to cellular texting in recent years, because members often don’t want to have to carry multiple devices — they do have day jobs when they’re not fighting fires.
I wanted to get the perspective of a volunteer chief on this topic, so I turned to Robert Rielage, who is chief of Wyoming (Ohio) Fire-EMS and a regular contributor to sister publication Fire Chief. He cautioned against relying solely on cellular-based text messaging.

“The cell phone is a good ancillary [option], but the pager is the most reliable method,” Rielage said. “We find that in a high-volume, cell-phone traffic time, it can be upwards of two to three minutes before that page reaches the cellular carrier. That’s a big problem.”

Another big problem is that most cellular carriers limit text messages to 130 characters, according to Rielage.

“You may get the critical information — for instance, that a structure fire has occurred at a specific address, and the units that are responding — but you may not get any additional information that the call-taker is taking,” Rielage said. “For example, it may say that residents on the third floor are unaccounted for. That’s information we would get with an alphanumeric pager. It’s a key detail.”

For these reasons, Rielage said that his department issues members an alphanumeric pager that is used during the daytime hours, because it is less bulky than the second pager that each member also receives. However, the second pager has a voice function in addition to text, which allows members to listen to dispatch transmissions and transmissions from responding units, at least on the primary channel. Members also can receive cellular texts, but they serve only as a backup, Rielage said.

In addition to the reliability concerns that surround cellular messages, there also is the matter of the ratings that are applied to fire departments by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). These ratings — impacting the hazard insurance rates paid by business and homeowners — take into account the reliability of a department’s communications, which is another reason that volunteer departments should avoid relying solely on cellular text messaging.

“If an agency wants to be ISO-graded, the communications requirements are that some level of duplicity in the system needs to exist,” Rielage said. “We go one step further by having three methods.”

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