There is no shortage of issues that APCO is addressing right now. As APCO's president, I am focused on understanding and addressing these critical issues. However, at this moment, I would like to move out of the technology arena and talk a bit about people.

April is when we celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. The second full week (April 10-16) is set aside each year by APCO — and more recently by Congress and the White House — to recognize and honor those in the public-safety family whose duty assignment is fondly referred to as the “Comm Center.”

Whether you refer to them as dispatchers, telecommunicators, call takers, 911 operators or any one of a number of other job titles, they provide critical life-saving service to other first responders and to our citizens. They perform their duties in good times and in bad times, 24 hours a day, every day, all year, every year.

In the middle of the night when most are sleeping, 911 calls are being answered and processed. In the early morning hours, when commuters are getting their first cup of coffee, these centers already are buzzing with activity. During man-made and natural disasters like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, more recently, Hurricane Katrina, most people gather up their belongings and their friends and family members and leave town while these professionals risk their lives and stand strong at their console to provide the necessary support to the public-safety networks and the first responders who rely on them.

Life for those in communications centers is pretty confining. Their post is a workstation, and they do not get to leave that workstation — for anything — until they are relieved.

Most citizens know them only as the voice of assurance on the telephone. To many, that calm voice is the caller's only link to hope for a few brief moments. In many instances, that voice helps them to help themselves by providing instructions in CPR or other life-saving procedures.

Communications personnel also are the voice on the radio for thousands of emergency service field responders such as firefighters, police officers, paramedics and tactical units. That voice provides valuable information and keeps track of personnel. Help is sent via radio when it is needed, and the calm voice on the radio often is a solid source of composure when shots are fired, injuries occur and things do not go as planned.

The job of a public-safety communicator is not well-understood. Most do not understand the challenges of responding to an emergency utilizing only voice contact as a source of feedback. Arriving on the scene of a major accident, a first responder can see who is on the scene and where they are. How do you make that initial assessment when you are a first responder by means of a telephone? At an accident, a first responder can see injuries and even lay hands on a distressed victim to calm them. The talented and skilled people in our communications centers accomplish this and more thousands of times every day.

In the heart of every hero is the commitment to self-sacrifice, the courage to stand your ground, the selflessness to defend the defenseless, the spirit to endure unreasonable difficulties, the strength to give to those in need and the wisdom to make a difference even though it may be done where no one else sees. The talented, dedicated and courageous men and women in our nation's communications centers are heroes in every right. They give freely of their skill, their ability and themselves and expect very little in return. During the coming year I hope you will get to know them better, appreciate them more and recognize their contributions frequently.


Wanda McCarley is the president of APCO International. She is also operations and training manager for Tarrant County 911 District. She is a certified instructor and curriculum developer and holds an advanced certification in public-safety communications from the state of Texas.