Talking to Tom Jackson, President of Midwest Paging in Joplin, Missouri, you can’t miss the edge of emotion as he describes what he saw and retells the stories of death and destruction following the horrid Joplin tornado. He was in the thick of things because his company provides paging services to the bulk of the emergency personnel, hospital and first responders who were responsible for coming to the aid and assistance of the citizens of Joplin when the massive tornado devastated their town last Spring.
For many people in this country right now, pagers seem like an archaic and out-of-date technology which should be replaced by smart phones that contain all the bells and whistles. However, Joplin is just one example of the absolute necessity for pagers and how they proved once again to be the most reliable and dependable messaging system for those on the front lines and caught in this monster tornado and other deadly natural disasters.
When the tornado hit Joplin, cell phone towers which cover approximately 2-4 miles per tower, were taken down. Estimates of the number of towers destroyed range from 13-20, which rendered cell service virtually useless and non-existent in the pit of the destruction. In contrast, Midwest Paging had two towers, one on top of the hospital and another tower several miles away. Unlike cell phone towers, paging towers can be located 25-30 miles away from the site they cover which provides the security of less terrestrial failure in these weather catastrophes. Even if the two closest towers to the hospital had been destroyed, the paging system would have remained functional from the remote transmitters.
In a situation like Joplin, or any natural disaster such as this, having that expanded coverage distance can mean the difference between service and no service, and life and death. It took approximately four to five days for cell phone service to be restored to the area, which is typical as cell towers are not easily constructed or replaced. With the paging tower, even if service had been completely lost, a tower could have been constructed within an extremely short period of time and service could have been restored by that evening and certainly by the next day. Tom was prepared with the necessary equipment under that scenario, which was not necessary due to the expansive coverage area and location of the other towers.
Understanding the devastation of the Joplin tornado is not something most of us can imagine until you begin listening to the heart-wrenching stories seen through the eyes of a person whose town was reduced to a war scene in minutes. Listening to the shaking of Tom’s voice when describing a recent young high school graduate being pulled from a sun roof as his father desperately tried to hold him in and suffering injuries while doing so; or describing a mom lost and her car found with the roof ripped off, leaving behind three teenagers frantically searching the streets; or hearing about an entire hospital whose foundation was moved four inches and two floors ripped away and reduced from a 365 bed facility down to 30 beds set up in a tent hospital for months, allows a small glimmer of what the first responders and citizens of Joplin must have endured. It was a blessing for this town the high school graduation let out just 30 minutes before the storm hit or the death toll would have been more horrendous and incomprehensible then it already is as the most deadly tornado which killed 162 people.
The question to be asked here is why and how did the paging system stay functional? That answer is in the technology itself: the way pagers send signals and function as opposed to the way cell phone systems operate. Pagers operate off a radio signal which has higher power and larger coverage area of up to 60 miles, in comparison the network signal for cell phones is typically only 10 miles. This expansive coverage area allows for placement of transmitters well outside areas which can be affected by weather forces as was the case here in Joplin. It also allows for transmitter placement that can provide overlapping coverage and therefore has less potential for failure. Cell towers do not have the same ability for this expansive coverage even with intensive placement of the towers because each tower has such a small coverage area and each cell phone literally competes for the signals from these towers to make a cell phone function. This is the reason there are dropped calls, lack of coverage especially in rural areas or inside buildings, and overloading of networks. Pagers are not subject to these faulty reception issues and will work in areas where cell phones may not. In addition, the construction of a cell tower, should one be destroyed by wind or rain, is not an easy undertaking. In contrast, a paging tower can be erected quickly on the spot and be powered by portable generators in the event power loss occurs, which is expected in destructive weather.
The way paging messages are sent also differs from the way a cell phone text message is transmitted. When disasters such as this one occur, it’s imperative to notify large groups or teams with critical and life-saving information. Pagers have the ability to assign a number to multiple different groups of individuals: code blue teams, hazmat teams or whatever other designation for emergency response is needed by a particular group. With these designations, one message is transmitted and disseminated to all members of that group regardless of the size. If sending that same message via text messaging, how many people are in the group will determine the number of messages needed to be sent out. For example, if the group consists of fifty people, with paging one message is sent to fifty people and with cell phones, fifty messages are sent out, one to each person. Thus, system overloads with cell phones is understandable.
According to Peggy Ball at the Joplin Hospital, it will be approximately two years before the new hospital is built as the old one has to be completely torn down. But she was grateful the hospital had a great disaster plan in place and all their years of training and practicing paid off under the most extreme circumstances and disaster they’ve ever faced. And, the paging system remained fully operational and communications were not disrupted in the middle of this ravaging storm.
Certainly cell phones and pagers have a cooperative roll in preparing for and working through natural disasters, but discounting the reliable and dependable technology of paging would be irresponsible and counter-productive to the front-line responders. This country has seen more then its share of natural disasters throughout the past few years and fine tuning the responses to these disasters in absolutely necessary. Using and expanding paging services so reliable and critical information is disseminated and placed into the hands of our first responders and emergency personnel will help save lives and make those responses smoother and safer for everyone.