On Pagers

On Pagers

pagerSince I joined SAR 15 years ago now, the one item that has defined my membership in the cadre of volunteer emergency responders is the pager. Like knights of old receiving their sword and shield, being given the pager for the first time meant that the team considered you ready for deployment in the field. It represented membership, and carrying it meant you were ready to respond at any time. You were now part of the team.

Being presented with the pager had many meanings, but when it went off it had only one meaning; usually that someone was having a much worse day than you were. The loud, urgent, piercing beeping of the Motorola Advisor pager (the type used by many of the teams on the South Coast) never failed to shoot adrenaline into my blood, startle me from sleep, or bring me running. Whether on my right hip, the night stand, or in another part of the house, the beeping could be heard from hundreds of feet away, through several walls and floors.

Such is the Pavlovian response to the pager’s beep that there are several restaurants (among other establishments) where I cannot eat; the beeping of the cooking equipment rings at almost the same frequency. I hear the sounds, and am on the edge of my seat, constantly reaching for the pager in its little holster, to see who is in trouble. Not a nice feeling. The ghost beeping attacks me elsewhere without warning; sometimes listening to music, the noise of children’s toys, video games, and other sounds make me thing I’m hearing my pager. I know I’m not alone in this.

The pager going off often means a drastic change in plans for the day. Reading the message on the little screen is followed by a flurry of quick thinking. Can I leave work? Do I have any appointments for the rest of today? Tomorrow? Who’s going to pick up the kids? There’s dozens of decisions to be made. Within 30 to 60 minutes of the pager going off a SAR member can be hundreds of kilometres away from where they started, staring at a helicopter flying away, and wondering where they are going to sleep tonight. This kind of effect from a simple sound can leave deep marks in your psyche.

The pager can mean joy; reading on the screen that the subject has been found. It can also mean extreme sorrow, as it is how I learned my friend Rollie had died.

It’s no wonder then that I awake from a deep sleep some nights, imagining the beeping in the distance. So realistic, so urgent is that call, that I get up, and wander through the house, looking for the pager, just to be sure it wasn’t my imagination.

While the pager means being part of the team, and everything it entails, most SAR members (and emergency responders) would probably also agree that we hate them with a passion. They are a stupid little device you have to carry everywhere. At first glance they appear to be a much worse version of a cell phone that you can only receive messages on. Most SAR members have asked, why would they carry both a phone and a pager when the cell phone can do both? You always have to remember where it is, you have to change the batteries, and they are embarrassing when you forget to turn them off. They make you look like a drug dealer, at least the drug dealers from the 80’s movies. My DAD carried a pager in the 70’s!

So it was with both sadness and joy that we received the following message from Telus a few months back.

Screenshot 2014-12-31 18.26.20

After 25 years of service, Telus is discontinuing their pager network.

For all of the bad things about the pager, there are the good ones

  • The work everywhere, and have far greater range than cellular networks.
  • They are loud and will wake you up in the middle of the night
  • They are reliable, hard to break, and easy to replace.

The team is facing and end to an era. We’re in the process of replacing the pager with a system that alerts the team via cell phones, SMS and email. But with this progress, there are issues; each phone is different; there are “quiet times” on some phones where they won’t ring after a certain hour you configure. The ringtone may not be loud enough to wake you up at night. You may have put the phone on silent and forgotten to make it audible again. For all the failings of the pager, it did not have the complexity and multiplicity of configurations, operating systems, and customizations of a cell phone.

And there’s that strange naked feeling when you leave the house without the small piece of plastic, glass and silicon that’s been on your hip for 15 years.

So we move forward, we say goodbye to the old, and say hello to the new; while it might be scary and different, we’ll make it work.

Best of the new year to my readers and see you in 2015.


8 Comments on “On Pagers

  1. We use a mix of pagers and cellphones. I only use a cellphone as the number of pagers are limited because of cost, and are usually reserved for the older/ more experienced team members. After sleeping through my first call out at 1am because my phone was in quiet mode I learned that there is an app for this.

    The one I use overrides all phone functions like vibrate or silent mode, it allows you to define a response to a call or text message from a certain number. Mine is configured to go to maximum volume, play an annoying pager type ringtone, flash the led, and vibrate. Through a widget it can be turned to vibrate or off independent of the phone itself. It can also automatically forward the alarm text or an predefined email/ text message to others. There are many other functions like answering the call/ text message, posting to Facebook, setting “quiet times” for the alarm, or repeating the alarm after a certain time if it was not answered the first time.

    The (free) app I use “Alarm Box” is in German but an English equivalent must exist somewhere out there, otherwise a bit of Google translate or contact me ;). https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.schaeferdryden.alarmbox&hl=de

  2. No English version for “Alarm Box” that I can find. And is only for Android devices. And similar iPhone app exists called “RingerX VIP” but requires a jail broken iOS.

  3. VHF pagers ftw. You do need infrastructure in place though. They work well for the fire service where we have a central transmitter. Lots of departments have begun using cell phone based systems for alerting members.

    Happy New Year, Michael!

  4. We haven’t used the old pagers in a while. It’s funny I can still clearly remember the first time it went off after I was given one. Back then we only had the numeric ones, so you had no idea what was going on. The downside of text and SMS is its not entirely reliable. We often have a few members report they didn’t get a page or it was very late. I’m sure something better will come along one day.

  5. I like the idea of simple pagers ( no vhf monitoring) we currently use a blend of minitor pagers and cell callouts but our minitors are prohibitively expensive and our cell callout isn’t reliable

    • Stephen, we’ve been using a combination of cell and pager for the last few months. Generally not happy with cell partially because of reliability of SMS, but also because each cell phone hardware / software set up is different as is the owner’s ability to configure the device properly. This results in the situation where the ringer on the phone could be off for any number of reasons (including “quiet time” or “do not disturb” modes).

      A lot easier just to hand someone a pager!

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