ORLANDO--While growing up, the days just before Thanksgiving were marked with eager, yet agonizing anticipation of what was to soon come. But the roller coaster of emotions wasn't because of the feast we would enjoy or the plethora of football games we would watch. Rather, it was because we knew that the annual Sears & Roebuck holiday catalog was about to arrive. And, even though we knew there was little chance of getting much of what was contained on those pages, it still was a joy to leaf through the catalog and dream.

I'm guessing that public-safety communications officials experience a similar feeling when they prepare to attend major industry events such as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference, which began here this morning. These are exciting times in public-safety communications, as vendors strive to bring to market advanced mobile voice and data applications that will make first responders more effective and, as important, safer.

As attendees from the public-safety sector walk the aisles and visit the various exhibits, some undoubtedly will be gripped by a feeling of longing, as budgetary constraints prevent them from taking advantage of the latest technology developments. I can empathize, as I used to feel the same way when I perused the Sears catalog. There always was a whiz-bang item -- usually several items -- that were beyond the financial reach of my parents. But the feeling never lasted long, as I undoubtedly would discover shortly after the holiday that some friend had received less than I. Longing quickly was replaced by gratefulness.

Recently, I spoke at length with a communications official from a small volunteer fire department in north-central Illinois. During our chat, he told me of the various fund-raisers they hold each year to supplement the agency's meager budget. My favorite was the turkey shoot, which sadly was removed from the list of approved events because of liability concerns.

As charming as that anecdote was, what he told me next startled me. He told me that as recently as five years ago, at-the-scene communications in his district consisted of using runners. When a runner wasn't available, or when time was an issue, they simply yelled to each other across the fire ground. It is hard to imagine such a situation could still exist at the advent of the 21st Century.

So much of what we hear and report upon deals with what public-safety doesn't have concerning its communications capabilities, particularly adequate spectrum and interoperability. But while it is necessary to continuously strive to improve communications for the first responders who put their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe -- or to help us, in dire circumstances -- I think a dose of perspective also is in order. For most public-safety officials who descended on Orlando this week, their communications systems could stand some improvement, but things always could be worse -- a lot worse.

E-mail me at gbischoff@mrtmag.com.