If there’s anything we should have learned recently in the wake of 911, hurricane Katrina and Haiti, it’s that in spite of all the technology available to us there’s still a problem with effective communication during disasters. Experts are scratching their heads as emergency workers run around grasping to find a way to get messages to each other and to perform their jobs effectively, while the public shakes their collective heads at the appearance of chaos. It’s apparent to many the failures of cell phones, internet and even the mobile radios that occurred during Katrina still have not been addressed. Discussions of ramping up networks, adding towers for cell phones and making mobile phones compatible, have all been thrown into the mix of the proposed solutions, but the reality is all come with huge complications, the same unresolvable issues and high price tags. And, in this faltering economy, nobody has found a way that makes any economic sense to instigate those solutions, the reality is they are just not practical.
What is realistic is going back to a tried and true form of communication that is dependable, economic and proven over time to work in a variety of situations including natural disasters. That communication system is pagers. When many people hear the word pager they think about the old fashioned “beeper” which is anything but sleek and sexy compared to a smart phone that has an application for everything, except communication during natural disasters. However, if the old beeper is what comes to mind at the verbal cue “pager,” then clearly a pager store needs to be on the list of destinations and soon.
Today’s pagers are sophisticated and capable of much more then, “back in the day,” and include one-way pagers, two-way pagers and pagers that have internet capability and emails. The brilliance of a pager though is found in the way a pager receives its signals and sends messages. For cell phones to function they depend on networks assigned a single channel in a single transmitter to a mobile connection with a much smaller range and then rely on the network to “hand off” the call to another tower, if there is a channel available and not overloaded. Pagers on the other hand, operate off a simulcast network which simultaneously delivers a radio signal from several transmitters providing wider coverage area and better in-building penetration than other technologies. One paging tower can cover an area of approximately sixty miles wide as compared with a cell tower which may cover ten miles maximum. So what happens in the case of a hurricane, tornado or flood when these towers are damaged or downed? In the case of a paging tower, an emergency tower can be immediately erected and run off a gas generator. Setting up an emergency paging tower can be done in the most remote of locations and can literally be done in the back of a pick-up truck if the situation demands. This is not the case with a cell phone tower, in fact, replacing a tower and getting a signal for cell phone operation is complicated and takes much more to function and not likely to happen in an emergency situation, and then there is the issue of actually getting a signal from that temporary tower. The problem of no signal is eliminated with pager use.
Paging systems can also easily designate priorities and block or limit non-critical users automatically for periods of time where it is imperative emergency users have access. Pagers were designed to send mass messages to large groups of people and have been used in this function for years. In the case of natural disasters, the first responders and other emergency personnel need information disseminated in this fashion without fail. This problem was widespread during hurricane Katrina and there was no way to counteract the crisis. If pagers had been used, information could have been broadcast and sent to the masses without problems instead of dropping messages in bottles from airplanes as occurred in Katrina.
The last feature of a pager that demonstrates the advantages of the device over cell phones, is the reliability. Pagers do not operate off a battery that needs to be charged with electricity. Pagers operate off standard batteries and the battery life, and therefore the pager life, is several months to up to a year. With the simple replacement of a battery, the pager functions again. Try recharging a cell phone in a natural disaster when the power has been wiped out. Clearly a pager is the more dependable choice when comparing the two.
It’s time to ask the hard questions with the easy answers and ask ourselves why we are ignoring what’s in front of us and available. Why aren’t we using the one communication tool that is dependable, economic, reliable and certain to save lives in these emergency situations? Why aren’t pagers in the hands of every first responder on the job? Sometimes newer with more apps and functions isn’t what the job requires. Sometimes, practical and proven is what we should be using, that is, if we want to avoid the calamity that was known as Katrina. Our first responders and our public deserve to have this simple solution. No amount of cell phone features or ring tones will make up for the lack of communication this country has endured throughout the most recent natural disasters. It’s time to put the tools to save lives back in the hands and pockets of our first responders. It’s time to return to pagers.