SIOUX CITY | The first pager was patented in 1949 for New York City doctors to stay in contact with the hospital. Countless "paging doctor" messages later, emergency workers are about the only people left still using beepers on a regular basis. But maybe not for long.
"I foresee within two years, we won't be carrying pagers anymore," said Brenda Gabel, senior telecommunications technician at Mercy Medical Center Sioux City, where 650 pagers were used as recently as 2008. "We'll be carrying smart phones instead."
These are humbling times for the trusty pager -- once a status symbol and safety net in an era of answering machines and pay phones. Sales plummeted as cell phones became affordable, of course, and now it's possible to buy a pager on eBay for next to nothing.
But there were holdouts, mainly first responders who need a reliable device to receive emergency calls quickly on a dedicated network.
The Sergeant Bluff Fire Department still has about 40 pagers for crew members. Each pager costs $500.
While some firefighters are using their cell phones more to respond to calls, pagers still maintain one key advantage, said fire Chief Anthony Gaul. Pagers can monitor updates being radioed by the dispatch center.
"We're dispatched to calls through our pagers since people are not always at the fire station," Gaul said. "We also use text paging on our cell phones, but there is a limit to the number of characters. Most people have their cell phones with them so it's a nice backup."
The Sioux City Fire Department, staffed by full-time employees, has never used pagers.
Brian Edds, a product manager for Amcom Software, an Eden Prairie, Minn., communications system company, said pagers still hold an edge in emergency situations if cell towers go down or get overcrowded as people try to make calls.
"We continue to see a strong demand for pagers in hospitals," Edds said. "Pagers are still cost effective, reliable tools for communication."
At around $75, hospital pagers also remain cheaper than smartphones, which cost at least $300, and ensure that patient information isn't transmitted to unsecure devices.
Still, there are obvious technical issues. A study by research firm Ponemon Institute found doctors waste 46 minutes a day by using a pager instead of a smartphone. That could equate to $8 billion in lost productivity annually.
At Mercy, beepers can still be found with about 200 nurses, doctors and maintenance staff. Most only display a number for employees to call back on a separate phone. Some higher-end models can also receive texts or receive voice messages.
That hassle is why Gabel ditched her pager eight years ago. Instead of carrying a phone and pager, she said, it's easier to do everything through one device.
Smartphones apps are also becoming increasingly advanced, allowing doctors to receive secure patient information. Gabel says pagers are on borrowed time.
"A pager is a one-shot attempt," she said. "If it does not find you – if you are not in a service area – you miss the page. But a cell phone will keep trying to connect."