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Voice pagers: What to know before you buy

They are a vital and reliable piece of firefighters’ communication tools, and they are getting more versatile

Smartphone? Check.

Tablet computer? Check.

Digital voice pager? Check.

Digital voice pager, really? With all this sophisticated wireless technology, do first responders still need communication technology that first appeared in 1921 when the Detroit Police Department used the first pagers? You bet.

Why? Look no further than the After Action Report completed by officials from Arlington, Va. (the authority having jurisdiction) following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

The authors of that AAR wrote, “Almost all aspects of communications continue to be problematic, from initial notification to tactical operations. Cellular telephones were of little value in the first few hours, and cellular priority access service is not provided to emergency responders. Radio channels were initially oversaturated, and interoperability problems among jurisdictions and agencies persist.”

In their recommendations, those same authors categorically stated, “Every firefighter and EMS responder should have a pager to receive dispatch notices both on and off shift … pagers were the most reliable means of notification.”

Wireless multicast systems
Today’s digital voice paging (DVP) systems operate as virtually wireless multicast systems, alerting thousands of people in seconds with secure text messages. With each message, the system displays who received and read it and how each person is responding. DVP systems, as evidenced by the findings of the Arlington AAR, are extraordinarily reliable. And with a private system often costing one-tenth the price of a comparable trunked voice system for similar coverage, the cost is minimal.

Current DVP systems aren’t solely dependent upon landlines — which are likely to be compromised in wide-scale disaster situations — because the systems can be controlled via satellite links and thus are unaffected by events on the ground.

Emergency response following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, provide more recent emergency management examples where DVP systems — with multicast transmitters — continued to function capably even as other wireless services where overwhelmed or failed altogether.

Increasingly, emergency responders are finding themselves working in structures and environments that present physical obstructions to radio and wireless telephone communication.

DVP systems that simulcast using multiple transmitters — providing inherent redundancy — are far more resistant to the physical barriers presented by concrete and steel construction and thus more reliable in such situations. That’s why physicians still carry pagers while on duty inside hospitals.

Pagers on public systems operate throughout the United States, so coverage isn’t an issue for more than 90 percent of the population. Advancements in pager operation have brought about many improvements over previous generations of devices and include:

  • Extended battery life with upwards of four weeks of operation using off-the-shelf AA or AAA batteries. Lithium-Ion technology provides equally impressive gains in rechargeable pager batteries
  • Pager displays that provide phone numbers, text messages and alerts
  • Pagers with the capability to send and receive text messages
  • Pagers and paging-based devices that can be accessed by phone, secured Web site, e-mail, modem, cell phone and two-way pagers (Users subscribe to an existing commercial paging service or construct a private system for exclusive use)

Lastly, the current generation of digital voice pagers comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s latest rules and regulations. The FCC has mandated that all non-federal public safety licensees using 25 kHz radio systems migrate to narrowband 12.5 kHz channels by January 2013.

The manufacturers
Motorola manufactures the most popular public safety pagers. Its Minitor series is the longest-running series of any radio receiver ever made by any company. The company’s current model, the Minitor V, features:

  • Wide- and narrow-band programmable channel spacing that is available on VHF and UHF models only
  • Stored voice capability of up to 8 minutes of voice message playback
  • Silent scan capability (dual-frequency model) that scans both channels silently and alerts on either channel
  • Priority scan capability (dual-frequency model) that plays all traffic on Channel 2 and alerts on Channel 1
  • 12 alert tones per channel that supports eight, two-tone pairs and four individual long-tone alerts
  • Programmable alerts that supports 10 different musical alerts.
  • Function mode announcement (stored-voice option) that announces programmed operating mode
  • Certified for hazardous locations

The retail price for the Minitor V is listed by various retailers between $459 and $488.

Swissphone and Apollo are two manufacturers that have emerged in the last five years to challenge Motorola in the U.S. marketplace. Swissphone’s current unit, the RE729, has features comparable to those found on Minitor V. In addition to its durable, completely sealed plastic case and plastic speaker — to prevent water damage — the RE729 features:

  • Ability to store 50 frequencies and 32 sets of tones
  • Ability to store four minutes of recorded voice transmission
  • Narrowband-ready
  • Scan and monitor capabilities
  • IP54 Certified. IP stands for Ingress Protection. The International Electrotechnical Commission developed this rating scale that describes the protection an electrical fitting has from intrusion of solid and liquid material. The letters IP are always followed by two numbers, the first refers to intrusion by solids (1-6) and the second refers to intrusion by liquids (1-8) An IP54 rating means the device is protected against dust, limited egress (solids) and protected against water spray from all directions (liquids).

Swissphone lists the retail price of the RE729 at $435 for a single-channel model and $485 for its dual-channel model.

While it may not be as familiar as Motorola to firefighters in the United States, Golden Sab, Inc. (GSI) has been a global provider and distributor of pagers, equipment and services. GSI does business as Apollo Digital Paging Company. Apollo’s flagship pager is the VP220Pro Voice Pager with features that include:

  • 12 call per channel
  • Eight individual and four group call
  • Expanded stored voice that records up to 8 minutes of voice message for playback
  • Loud, clear alert level
  • Large volume control knobs with on/off switch
  • Function switch that will be configured to four positions
  • Two channels
  • Silent and priority scan
  • Programmable narrowband and wideband channel spacing
  • Caller ID display
  • IP54 certified

The retail price for the VP220Pro is listed by various retailers between $420 and $480. Apollo Digital Paging Company is a wholesaler.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.