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Women in Public Safety Communications: Cheryl Konarski

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  • Women in Public Safety Communications: Cheryl Konarski

    We reached out to women in public safety leadership roles to discuss the challenges they’ve faced and provide advice for future leaders. In the coming months, APCO will highlight these interviews online and in our publications.

    Cheryl Konarski, RPL, CPE, Joplin Emergency Communications Center, Communications Manager
    • In public safety for over 34 years, 25 in communications.
    • APCO member since 2007.
    • APCO RPL and CPE designation
    • Treasurer for Missouri APCO since 2011. Actively involved in state conference, co-chair of the Education Committee, and member of the Legislative Committee. Has submitted Declaration of Candidacy to run for Executive Council Representative on behalf of Missouri in order to represent the state on the national level.
    • Currently serves on APCO International Professional Development Events Committee (with three years of prior service), the Awards Committee and the Agency Training Program. Previously served on Editorial Committee (five years, with two as vice-chair and two as chair), and the Historical Committee (one year).
    • Also serves on the Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for PSC Manager/Directors.
    • “As members, we must be involved.”

    How did you get your start in emergency communications?

    I started pre-emergency communications as a station dispatcher with the San Bernardino County Marshal’s Department in 1984. Each of our seven stations had their own dispatcher who would monitor deputies out serving warrants, civil process, etc. We eventually consolidated all the dispatchers into one station, which I worked out of. Although we didn’t answer emergency calls, we did have our share of emergencies in the field. I remember our eviction deputy was out in the field one day. He came across the radio: “Central, I’m out serving this eviction notice and this good ol’ boy doesn’t want to go I think. He’s got a bomb strapped to him – can you send me some help when you’ve got a minute”! Between calls like that, calls of “Central, we’ve got one running”, fights breaking out in courtrooms and a “shots fired” in the courthouse during a domestic hearing, we definitely had our share of emergencies! I worked as a clerk and dispatcher out of our central station for several years until I promoted into the administrative side of our agency, and continued as a relief dispatcher until we merged with the San Bernardino County Sheriff in 1999.

    In 2003, my husband, son and I moved to Missouri. I briefly worked at our local university until the county I lived in advertised for 9-1-1 dispatchers for their newly funded center. I missed working within public safety and jumped at the chance to get back into a profession that I love. In 2005, I began as one of the inaugural dispatchers for Dade County Emergency Services in Greenfield, Missouri. I stayed there, promoting to supervisor and trainer in 2007.

    In 2019 I applied for the communication manager position at the Joplin Emergency Communication Center. I was hired and started in March of 2019. I absolutely love my work here – I have an amazing team and great support from our command staff. I am excited to help continue to shape our center and bring some new ideas and programs for our team.

    What are some of the obstacles you have overcome in this industry?

    Most of my obstacles come from not believing in myself. I was hesitant to put myself out there, to move from my comfortable space. At my last agency, I had been there since the first group of dispatchers was hired in 2004. I knew the history, how things worked, and felt like I needed to be there. It took enrolling in and completing the CPE program to realize that I need to let myself grow, move and try new things. Yes, it was scary putting myself out there, but it was exactly what I needed. I was frustrated and taking it out on others because I was unhappy, not being challenged and not feeling that I was making a difference. That was on me and I needed to be the one that made that leap of faith. It has been rewarding in so many ways.

    How has your APCO membership helped you in your profession?

    Tremendously! I was invited to apply for the Certified Public-Safety Executive Course in 2017 after applying for the Registered Public-Safety Leader. With the support of my husband (he pulled money from his retirement to help pay for it beyond what the scholarship covered because he believed in me). I was able to apply for, be accepted to and complete this life-changing program. I firmly believe if I had not taken the APCO CPE course I would not have applied for my current position. As much as I wanted more of a leadership role in public safety communications, I never really felt I had the chance to actually achieve my goal. The CPE program gave me the courage, tools and strength to put myself out there and go for what I wanted – a chance to make a difference within an agency in a leadership role.

    I went back and took the RPL course, which has been extremely helpful as well. Also, being an APCO and Missouri Training Partnership certified instructor has helped me get out of my comfort zone and speak in front of groups, sharing my passion and knowledge for public safety communications. This profession is amazing, and I’m so happy to be able to continue to do what I absolutely love. I absolutely know, without a doubt, that APCO has given me opportunities that I would never have dreamed possible. I’ve had the opportunity to attend and present at several APCO International conferences – the networking opportunities have been amazing – I have friends all over the country that I can call on anytime with questions, an ear to bend, collaborate with and so much more. The network of APCO International has been a lifesaver so many times.

    How should women support other women in their agency?

    We need to give each other a bit of grace and understanding. We need to support each other and be there for each other. We need to not judge, but understand. We need to be open to learning from each other. We need to provide opportunities for growth – be willing to mentor someone, even when they may not feel they are ready for it. As an observer, you can see the potential in someone often before they see it themselves. That is a powerful thing and something that is so easy to give to someone. Always remember what it was like trying to break into this business and be heard – give someone that leg up that you either received or wish that you had been given.

    Do you or did you have a mentor?

    I’ve had several over the years. Each has made various impacts on my life and helped me move forward in my career. My most powerful mentor is the same one that shaped my leadership style. She believed in me long before I did. When I told her I was applying for the position I currently have, she asked me what took me so long! She’s always been in my corner and I don’t think she realizes just how much of an impact she’s had in my life. I only hope I can do the same for others.

    Can you give an example of exceptional leadership that you experienced? And how did that shape your leadership style?

    I have a friend who is a former director for a neighboring agency. Those that worked with her could not say enough great things about her leadership in their agency. She turned a very toxic environment into one that was sought after and people were proud to work there. I have worked with her on committees and volunteering for conferences and had seen her leadership on that end. I asked her one day how she developed her style because I was impressed with how well her folks spoke about her. She said, “I just took away all the negative things that leaders I have had have done and promised not to do them!” It was as simple as that – she is leaving a legacy of leadership simply by being aware of what she is doing and how it impacts others, and working not to do the negative things that have happened to her. It seems like such a simple thing, but it is so powerful. I try to do the same thing every day.

    What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

    Believe in yourself. Take every opportunity to grow and develop your leadership skills. Watch those around you that you admire and have conversations with them. Find out how they got where they are. Don’t wait for someone to hand the silver spoon to you – reach out and grab it with both hands and don’t let go. Don’t let finances and time get in your way – be creative in ways to make those opportunities happen. Apply for scholarships; volunteer at conferences. Save up and apply for scholarships for courses such as RPL and CPE. Treat it like a job application – it is your future you are looking at!

    Remind your leaders that the next generation is here and they want to learn so they are ready to step up when it’s time. When it’s my time to retire, I want to know I’ve left our agency in capable hands that are trained and ready to lead. Be visionary in your goals.

    I would love to have another 30+ years in front of me. They are going to be amazing and take our profession to levels we never imagined. Coming from someone who started with handwritten comm logs, reel to reel recordings and DOS-based CAD programs to a future that includes technology that was only dreamed of, opportunities that we never thought were possible – I want to be part of that, and so should you!

    What is the best thing to happen to you this week, either at work or outside of it?

    Seeing my husband continue to heal from knee replacement surgery. It has been a much harder journey than we were prepared for, but he is getting better each day. He’s been my biggest advocate, always supporting any crazy ideas I have and believing in me every day.

    Greatest career accomplishments

    Receiving my CPE certification was a huge highlight of my career. This intensive program changed my life, and I’ve made some great friends because of it.

    What inspires you?

    Over the 34 years that I have been involved in public safety, I feel that I’ve seen so many exciting changes in public safety communications and have been given opportunities by people that I’ve looked up to. I want to be a person that does that for others – I want to effect change and help motivate those around me. Getting up and coming to our center is something l look forward to every day – I want to make a difference in the lives of those I work with, as well as our responders and citizens. I want to be the best version of myself for those I work with and help them believe in themselves.

    Where do you find yourself on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m.?

    Usually spending time with my family, hanging out. They are my greatest joy in life!