Urgent Matters

A toast to 911 telecommunicators — America's unsung heroes


Call-takers and dispatchers in PSAPs may not grab the headlines, but they are critical to the 911 system and to public safety.

I have a weakness — several, actually. The one I'd like to address today concerns the unsung hero. I love unsung heroes. I love baseball players who hit behind the runner. I don't like football, but I love offensive linemen, who toil anonymously and get the snot beat out of them as they try to open holes for running backs and prevent quarterbacks from ending up in the emergency room. I love basketball players who set screens. Well, you get the idea.

All of this explains why I always have had a soft spot for 911 call-takers and dispatchers. There have been all sorts of television shows and movies that have focused on the exploits of police officers and firefighters — and with good reason. Even EMTs have had their day in the spotlight — remember "Emergency"? But I would be willing to bet my house that we'll never see a show that focuses on what happens in a public-safety answering point.

(Actually, now that I think about it, I recall writing about a program that was going to share the moronic 911 calls that people occasionally make. But that's less about 911 telecommunicators and what they do as it is about how dumb some people are at times.)

I suppose no one ever has thought about doing a movie or television show about a PSAP, because there's no blood, gore or explosions — that's what gets ratings and sells tickets these days. But I suspect the bigger reason is that few people outside of public safety understand the vital role in first response that 911 telecommunicators play. (There are quite a few in public safety who fail to grasp this, by the way.) Emergency call-takers and dispatchers are sort of like electricity — nothing happens without it, and you usually don't notice it until it's not there.

Last week, I dropped into an educational session held during the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Minneapolis. If you've been a reader of this column for even a short amount of time, you know that I regularly describe PSAPs as the hub of the first-response wheel. During this session, Matt Stillwell, a regional APCO representative who also is director of Edmond (Okla.) Public Safety Communications, spoke to this for a few moments, mentioning that the work 911 telecommunicators do often is overlooked in comparison with that of police, fire and EMS.

"But if we don't do what we do, they can't do what they do," Stillwell said. Imagine my smile upon hearing those words.

So, on Monday, when America takes a well-deserved breather from its labors, I will crack open an ice-cold beer — another weakness of mine — and raise a glass to toast everyone who has ever worked in a PSAP. America might not know you well, but that doesn't diminish who you are or what you do. Unsung heroes are the best kind.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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