Paging is very much in the present

Following recent reports criticising the use of ‘outdated’ pagers by medical professionals; Derek Banner, chairman of The Critical Messaging Association of Europe (CMA-E), defends the role of the technology in critical communications

Derek Banner argues that modern pager systems still have a role to play in healthcare

Recent reports reveal that millions of pounds is being spent on ‘outdated’ and ‘broken’ pager devices every year in NHS hospitals.

A recent CommonTime research document found that NHS hospitals currently use more than 10% of all pagers in circulation worldwide, despite a sharp global decline in wider usage of the decades-old technology.

Limitations of the devices, and the fact that key suppliers have been abandoning the market, were highlighted, with the report claiming that the health service could save more than £2.7m of the direct costs associated with pagers every year by moving their function to alternative and more-capable devices such as smartphone.

There seems to be a misconception in some quarters that pagers are somehow an ‘old technology’, but modern pagers are just as relevant and vital to today’s critical communications needs

But, as doctors and IT professionals call for more-modern methods of frontline communications; are pagers unarguably unfit for purpose? I would say definitely not!

Most people know what a pager is, such is its ubiquity in critical communications.

Interestingly, though, there seems to be a misconception in some quarters that pagers are somehow an ‘old technology’.

Although these devices were first used more than 60 years ago; modern pagers are just as relevant and vital to today’s critical communications needs.

A recent article from UK national newspaper, The Guardian implied that the NHS’s use of pagers was out of date and unsuitable for its needs. I was disappointed to read these claims as, in my opinion, it doesn’t reflect the importance and excellent service this technology continues to provide.

Hospitals currently use 10% of all pagers worldwide

Service benefits

To brand pagers as ‘old technology’ is much the same as saying cars or aeroplanes are old technology.

Paging continues to provide the NHS with an inexpensive, reliable, adaptable, robust, resilient, rugged, simple and effective critical communications system that can be used by emergency teams or administrative teams alike

While the concept has been in use for a long time; the technology employed now is far evolved from the early devices and networks.

The original pagers were large, one-way, analogue devices that could only be used to receive a single alert. Modern pagers are compact, digital, two-way devices that can receive full text messages and voice sent to a single receiver or a large group, through one signal; in much the same way that televisions decode the same transmission.

Users are alerted very quickly and the technology is extremely reliable.

Pagers also use secure networks, which can be fortified so they are almost impossible to hack and are therefore well insulated from cyber attacks. They can also be designed to run for lengthy periods - from weeks to months, in contrast to smartphones which often require a daily recharge - when power is down in the eventuality of a disaster or attack.

Value for money

Paging is also an inexpensive way of alerting first responders to emergencies. For example, even the Guardian article suggests the NHS uses 130,000 pagers at a cost of £6.6m – which would equate to £50 per unit, considerably cheaper than any other smart device.

With a combination of highly-effective service and cost efficiencies, it is not hard to see why this technology is widely used around the world.

Evolving needs

Some of the confusion over the merits of paging has undoubtedly been fuelled by Vodafone’s recent announcement that it will be closing its network in 2018. It is important to understand, though, that the company runs a national network that covers most of the UK.

Hospital networks are private and ‘on site’, covering a much-smaller area that needs 100% guaranteed coverage, and are in no way threatened by the closure of the Vodafone network.

Paging continues to provide the NHS with an inexpensive, reliable, adaptable, robust, resilient, rugged, simple and effective critical communications system that can be used by emergency teams or administrative teams alike.

Because they use private networks; in times of emergency or during a crisis paging networks do not suffer from communications traffic congestion.

Testament to their suitability for the task at hand is the number of organisations in the UK, Ireland and worldwide that continue to rely upon paging systems as the default choice for the most vital of needs. These include cardiac and other critical healthcare teams, the emergency services, utilities, the oil and gas industry, hospitality, retail and even the gritting vehicles that keep highways open in cold weather.

Yves Le Gal, Multitone’s account manager based in France, recently summed this up. He said: “France has 400,000 volunteer firefighters who all use pagers. To suggest these large professional teams are using an obsolete technology is both inaccurate and illogical.

With evolving technology and robust, safe and dependable networks; there is every reason to believe pagers will continue to be at the forefront of critical communications in the future

“With support for GPRS, two-way communications location services and increasingly with wireless internet networks (such as Sigfox and LoRa) these are highly-modern and adaptable devices which are ideal for these applications.”

Continued popularity

With evolving technology and robust, safe and dependable networks; there is every reason to believe pagers will continue to be at the forefront of critical communications in the future.

Interestingly, the article in The Guardian suggested the NHS uses 10% of the world’s pagers – which would equate to 1.3 million in total. I strongly suspect the total number of pagers in the world is well in excess of this number, considering the vital role they play globally.

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