Some smartphone software application developers are trying to convince medical professionals and emergency responders to replace their pagers with a new smartphone paging app. These paging apps may be sufficient for some, but for anyone who receives critical messages, consider this before you retire your pager – smartphone paging apps are only as reliable as the cellular or Wi-Fi network on which they operate.
While new smartphone paging apps are promising the same fast, reliable service as pagers, a comparison of cellular and paging networks and devices shows dramatic differences that can impact the reliability and speed of critical messaging, as well as patient and public safety.
Cellular Networks Lack Reliability
When using a smartphone paging app, your critical messages will be delivered on a cellular system. Those are the same networks that are notorious for dead zones, dropped calls and poor in-building coverage. This sporadic, at best, cellular network reliability undermines even the finest smartphone app.
Cellular systems were not designed for the delivery of critical messaging. In fact, most cellular carriers provide a disclaimer and caution users not to rely on their system for the delivery of critical messaging.
Think of major U.S. disasters over the past decade. In many cases, local cellular systems were quickly overloaded or disabled — proving virtually useless for emergency communications. In the aftermath of the tragic tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, the local cellular systems were off line for up to four days.
Luckily, Midwest Paging’s simulcast network delivered uninterrupted critical messaging even though the paging transmitter and antenna on top of St. John’s Regional Medical Center were blown off the building. The surrounding transmitters continued broadcasting critical messaging to medical personnel inside the hospital, as well as first responders throughout the Joplin area.
Paging Networks Have Unique Capabilities
Unlike a cellular network that sends a message from only one site at a time, a paging network sends the message over every transmitter in the network at exactly the same time. This simulcast technology is unique to paging and is significantly more reliable than the cellular networks used by smartphones.
Paging systems also have the singular capability to set up a common group address in any pager so that the same message is sent and received at exactly the same time to as many people as needed in a group. A hospital’s Stemi and Code teams are generally set up this way. Smartphone apps can’t do that. Mass message delivery with cellular networks can result in different delivery times for each device, often measured in minutes that can be critical for emergency responders.
Paging networks also outperform cellular networks when it comes to broadcast power. Paging systems have up to seven times the power of cellular networks, translating into better signal penetration in buildings and more reliable message delivery. A single paging transmitter site typically covers 176 square miles, while a typical cell site covers only 10-15 square miles. Pager systems typically provide better coverage in rugged and remote terrain than cellular networks.
Is a Smartphone Really More Convenient?
While new smartphone paging apps tout single device convenience, smartphones have several drawbacks that limit their reliability for critical messaging. The smartphone interface can require users to take a number of steps to read a critical message, which can be difficult during emergencies.
With a pager, critical messages don’t compete with e-mails, text messages, streaming video and other information received by a smartphone. Pagers are easy to use and solely designed to meet the demands of critical messaging.
Power failures often coincide with a crisis, making it difficult or impossible to recharge a smartphone. And, having a smartphone tethered to a charger on a regular basis just isn’t practical during emergency situations. The disposable battery in a pager generally lasts 3 to 4 weeks and is easily replaced. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled cell phones may provide redundancy, but they also significantly cut back on the phone’s battery life. Forget to enable those features, and you may not receive your critical messages at all.
You should also know that smartphones that operate on our nation’s largest cellular network utilizing CDMA technology can’t receive messages or texts when in use on a call. Imagine an emergency responder missing a message in a life or death situation just because they took a phone call.
Both paging technology and the new smartphone paging apps can play important roles in messaging for healthcare professionals and first responders, but only paging should be considered for critical messaging. During dire times when reliable, immediate communication is paramount, it’s irresponsible to rely exclusively on the cellular network and smartphone apps.
Consider all the facts, and the consequences, before you trust your critical messaging to a smartphone paging app and the cellular network.
Ted McNaught is president of Critical Alert Systems, the third largest paging carrier in the United States. He has worked in the paging industry since 1986, was the founding president of the American Association of Paging Carriers and currently serves on the Executive Committee, as well the Enterprise Wireless Association’s Board of Directors.