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Beepers by the millions answer the call


Parents use them like "electronic leashes" to keep tabs on their children and rein them in.

Corporate executives rely on them to escape interminable meetings. Some farmers are even using them to call their cows.

In this impulsive, seconds-count, can't-wait world, there's a beeper for nearly every cause, as more and more people opt to be on call virtually all the time.

According to surveys by the Personal Communications Industry Association, the number of beeper users has been growing by more than 20 percent per year for the past five years.

With growth expected at nearly that rate throughout the rest of the century, there will be as many as 75 million beepers in use by the year 2000, analysts say.

In our competitive society, says Jack Levin, a Northeastern University sociologist, "every little advantage counts. And no one wants to wait for anything. Before long, beepers will be as commonplace as telephones."

There's now a pillbox pager that beeps to let you know when to take your medicine, a health-oriented beeper that monitors your pulse and heart rate, an environmentally correct pager that sounds more like a chirp than a beep.

There are beepers you can wear like a watch, beepers as thin as credit cards, beepers that double as pens. Custom-designed beepers brandish the wearer's favorite sports team or alma mater engraved on the casing.

Some doctors, dentists and beauty salons have begun issuing beepers to patrons, so they don't have to wait for appointments. Restaurants including Clyde's in Columbia page customers to let them know their table is ready.

"Customers found that announcing names over a loudspeaker detracted from the dining experience, and this way they can spend the waiting time browsing in the mall," said Steve Lawrence, general manager of Legal Sea Foods in the Prudential Center of Boston, which began giving beepers to diners six months ago.

Many people with digital pagers have created family codes to make sure the kids have been picked up from school or that somebody gets the right groceries for dinner. But Ted Strauss, a San Francisco designer and inventor, decided to go them one better.

He has created a pocket-sized, 200-page guide intended to turn an ordinary digital beeper into a complete message system. His little book, "Pager Power," provides 11,000 numerical codes that represent words or phrases.

For instance, one party might send another the code 101, which means "Do the laundry"; 946 means "You blew it"; and 776 stands for "This time I'm really leaving."

In what some call the wave of the future, a few companies have created alpha-numeric pagers that send letters instead of numbers, allowing for rapid transmission of short, cryptic messages. Others expect to see beepers integrated into fax and personal computer systems in the future.

Some observers see this as the McWord's style of communication -- fast but without much subtlety. Or, as Jane Matheson, executive director of the Fields Corner Community Development Corp. in Boston, remarked, "It's a way to be connected without really communicating."

Rachel Fletcher, a community organizer in Great Barrington, Mass., said, "It's the new way of shooting your mouth off."

But Mr. Strauss says it can be used "to send little presents" to someone you care about -- such as 282, "I still love you," or 016, "Anything is possible." And he says there are hundreds of situations when a beeper can send an emergency message more quickly than any other means.

One of the most important in medical situations may be the Life-Page system, through which hospitals call in requests for organ donations and a national center pages patients when a transplant is available.

According to Lee Sampson, national coordinator for Life-Page, more than 600 pagers are in use each month in this way. In the Boston area, Massachusetts General, Beth Israel, Brigham and Women's and New England Deaconess hospitals participate in the Life-Page program.

Jean Coppenbarger, chairwoman of the Paging Services Council the Personal Communications Industry Association, told the story of a California woman with a diabetic daughter, who has her care giver beep the daughter's blood sugar level and the amount of insulin she intends to administer.

If the care giver "didn't get a call back in 10 minutes, she knew it was the correct dose," Ms. Coppenbarger said.

All pages are not confined to people. According to William Wilson, chief financial officer of Arch Communications Group, a pager service in Westboro, Mass. "Many people are paging things, and things are paging people."

For instance, several communications systems are programmed to page technicians when they detect a fault in their operation. The Coca-Cola Co. created beverage machines that beep headquarters when the supply is getting low.

Mr. Wilson said that one of his friends has fashioned a system through which he pages the thermostat in his New Hampshire cabin to turn the heat up to 72 degrees when he's headed that way in winter. "By the time he arrives, the cabin is nice and toasty," Mr. Wilson said.

But for all those who laud the technology and its wide range of possibilities, there are many who resent the fact that they can never be beyond the call of a beep.

When she started working for Boston's police force, Ms. Matheson said, "the first thing they did was give me a beeper, and the first thing I did was dismantle it."

"It was, like: 'Nyah, nyah, wherever you are, we can get you.' My attitude was, 'No, you can't always connect with me.' "

Which is how some teen-agers feel about the use of beepers as "electronic leashes" parents employ to keep track of them, said Sarah Feldman, 20, a sales associate at the Nature Company in Boston.

"It removes a lot of privacy, because you can always be found," she said. "But at least it's better than curfew."

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