Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the Senate's intelligence overseer, carries a pocket beeper to advise him of the launching of CIA covert operations.
President Carter's advance men use beepers. So do a local yogurt distributor, call girls, a private eye, a Federal Energy Administration official, a rape counseling crisis group and a Kennedy Center official who recently got a beep at dinner and hurried back to calm an angry concert star and save a show.
Congressmen use beepers, Rep. Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa) for one. "When I'm on the Senate side or if I'm out of the building, it goes off all the time," Bedell said. "I will tend to forget appointments and when it goes off I realize I've got to do something. Yesterday it went off in commitee and and somebody said, 'Doctor Bedell wanted in surgery.'"
Rep. Gladys Spellman's (D-Md.) beeper, which she keeps in her purse, went off the other morning while she was awaiting her turn in crowded hearing room to testify on a diplomatic immunity bill. "It was incredibly loud," an aide said. "Beep, beep, beep, beep. She carries a large purse and she couldn't find it." But the monmentary embarrassment was worth it: Vice President Mondale's office wanted her.
Radio pagers, popularly known as beepers, have been used for years, primarily by doctors. Three years ago, when the energy crunch hit, many companies began outfitting workers with beepers as a cost-cutting, energy-saving measure. Repair and service persons, out on the road, could be directed more economically.
Now, given Americans' love affair with gadgetry and their mania for keeping in touch, illustrated by the CB radio craze, more beeps than ever are being heard around executives, salesmen, almost anybody. And both private and government surveys forecast that the 750,000 pagers now in use - pagers that either give a simple beep or a voice message - will grow to 3 million in a decade.
Could the White House function without its beepers? Forty-nine staff members have them (including Stuart Eizenstat, Frank Moore, Jack Watson, Jody Powell), as do 26 more on such executive bodies as the National Security Council and the Domestic Council. A beeper went off only last week during a presidential scheduling and staff conference. "You should tell your mother not to call during working hours" one staffer said to his beeped colleague.
Beepers - the size of a narrow box of cigarillos or an almost-square pack of regular-size cigarettes - can be an important convenience, an annoyance, or a status symbol. They can be crucial when used to contact doctors. While some users might prefer not to hear from their bosses or anybody, other enjoy having their beepers go off.
Just carrying a beeper sometimes can have an effect. "It tends to move you up in restaurant lines," a man said. "People think you're important." A young woman said she thought a date tried to impress her with his pager.
But how much of an impression can you make if your beeper doesn't go off? What's worse than being unwanted? So one takes a calculated risk showing off a beeper, unless he knows for sure that someone will call, which, perhaps, can be prearranged.
Beepers even have become part of Washington's social consciousness. A local hostess is worried because she hasn't heard any beeps at her recent parties. Does this mean she's not inviting the "in" people? She reassures herself with the though that her guests are probably being signaled instead with the silent "wiggler" pager, which shakes when activated.
Though a "wiggler" would seem more appropriate for viewing an opera or ballet at the Kennedy Center, beepers frequently go off during quiet moments in the middle of a performance. No orchestra leader cares to hear a beep. "When your thought processes are as deep as can be, sometime a beeper will go off," said Murry Sidlin, former National Symphony resident conductor. "Your reaction is one of curiosity: What the hell is that? The first instinct is to look over at the piccolo player.
But while a beep in the middle of Brahms may irritate some, it's a proud moment for paging companies.
The joke - or is it a joke? - about the "wiggler" is that somebody out on a secret rendezvous will never have to worry about receiving a message to "call your wife." But there's one disadvantage to a "wiggler." Most women carry pagers in a purse, points out Harry Brock, president of Metrocall of Alexandria, and "there's no advantage to a shaking pager in a purse."
This is because the walls of the Kennedy Center, as well as the Watergate complex, are particularly difficult to penetrate, and the low land there compounds the problem, according to John Danzer, sales manager for the Washington office of Contact of Washington Inc. Danzer says his company has solved the problem by "going to a higher frequency" radio signal that's sent to the beeper, which is essentially a radio receiver.
To reach a person with a pager, a secretary or answering service calls a special number. That number is tied to a computer by a paging service company, of which there are about 500, licensed as public carriers by the Federal Communications Commission and state authorities. The computer then broadcasts a particular set of tones that makes a single beeper go off. A signal generally will carry about 25 miles over frequencies solely owned or shared by paging companies in a particular area.
Most pagers are rented because of the significantly greater purchase price. It costs about $16 and $25 a month to rent a single-tone pager, about $20 to $29 a month for a tone and voice pager, which enables one to hear about a 10-second message. There's also a beeper that allows one to receive signals or messages from more than one source; this is known as the "dual address" system and can cost roughly $2 more than the basic monthly rental fee. A "silent alerting" pager - the "wiggler" - runs only about $4 more a month to rent than the basic model. But to buy a beeper takes about $200 minimum and ranges up to about $375. There's also a small monthly service charge.
The three major pager producers are Motorola, Bell & Howell, and Martin-Marietta, and telephone companies also have entered the business. The Bell system, for example, features the "Bell Boy." The market is sound: Subscribers are growing at the rate of 25 per cent a year.
People in increasing numbers, knowing they have their beepers, are finding they can relax. "Dependability is the big thing," says Danzer. An oncall doctor, for instance, had a perfectly good time at a costume party here not long ago; his wife, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, carried his beeper in her basket.
When the cost of buying a pager goes down - and paging companies and their trade association, the National Association of Radio Telephone Systems, think they will, with soon-to-arrive new technology - pagers, now just beginning to put to personal uses, may become as popular as pocket calculators.
One could, paging company people say, call your child home from the playground or even put a beeper on your dog and train him to come home at the sound of the beep.
This is all very well unless something should go wrong and you find a German shepherd instead of a miniature poodle on your doorstep. Sometimes, very rarely, the wrong beeper does go off.
One day last winter the Park Service maintenance office received a beep and was told to send three truck-loads of sand to an icy patch on the George Washington Parkway. The call actually was meant for the G.W. Parkway maintenance force, which also heppened to get the word. Thanks to the much-touted efficiency of beeperdom, six trucks of sand were sent to the same location.