BALTIMORE--Emergency call takers and dispatchers may not be in the field, but they can be the first line of defense in identifying terrorist activity and limiting its damage, a speaker said yesterday during a continuing-education course proceeding today’s opening of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference.

While some law-enforcement officials may view call-center personnel as little more than clerical staff serving passive roles, call takers and dispatchers can be in a position to spot trends in 911 calls that may point to terrorist activity. This is particularly true in the cases of some biological and chemical terrorist attacks, because callers’ initial symptoms can be the same as those associated with than common illnesses, said Jack Varnado, instructor of the APCO Institute course entitled “The Telecommunicator’s Role in Homeland Security.”

“We are the information collection points for our public-safety agencies,” said Varnado, deputy director of the St. Tammany Parish Communications District in Louisiana. “We could be the first ones to put the puzzle pieces together and say, ‘Something’s wrong here.’

Established in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and first taught in 2005, the APCO Institute course is designed to provide telecommunicators with information to help spot identify potential terrorist activity, what questions to ask emergency callers in such situations and how to best support first responders being dispatched to the scene, Varnado said. Fortunately, 911 personnel are equipped to handle such situations, although the stress levels and call volumes associated with terrorism events can be quite taxing, he said.

“Our job does not change; we just have a much larger incident than we deal with in day-to-day operations,” Varnado said.

Knowing the characteristics of the various types of terrorist tactics—for instance, the use of biological, chemical, nuclear, incendiary and explosive weapons—can help telecommunicators provide good advice to callers and appropriate direction to first responders at the scene.

In particular, it is important for call-center personnel to inform emergency callers of the best method to ensure the safety of themselves and others, whether it be to evacuate a possibly explosive area or to place a letter potentially laced with Anthrax in clear plastic bag and quarantine themselves until first responders arrive, Varnado said.

And 911 call takers asking the right questions can be a critical part of the evidentiary process, as the on-scene descriptions of witnesses at a scene can provide very enlightening information—and, in the case of those who may have been fatally wounded, the only opportunity for them to provide their perspective of the situation, Varnado said.

“When you are at the other end of that emergency call, you are initial investigator,” he said.