Many commonalities are shared by the suppression and communications functions of a fire department. Both must respond to emergencies at a moment's notice. Both rely on accurate information to do their jobs. And both require a minimum amount of staffing to function efficiently. When it comes to ramping up for the big one, however, incident commanders have a distinct advantage over dispatch directors. For years, the fire service has developed the principle of progressive response. If the incident is past the ability of the first-in units to control, additional alarms are ordered. This has developed into an extremely complex system that effectively deals with major emergencies.
Refinements to the recommendation of apparatus take into account a variety of factors that include, but are not limited to, the type of incident, the type of occupancy, weather and even the time of day. Firefighter safety concerns now mandate additional companies for traffic calming and control on interstate highways and rapid intervention teams when structural attacks are made. And, where a community lacks adequate resources, mutual aid agreements can be inked that automatically call in assistance from surrounding towns and boroughs.
Unfortunately, as an emergency escalates, the communications center lacks those advantages. Many rely on the call-back of off-duty personnel, but this provides no more immediate relief than the call-back of their uniformed counterparts. Certainly, the additional staff eventually arrives, but distance and weather can severely slow the delivery of this benefit. Until help arrives, the on-duty crew members are on their own. As troublesome as singular incidents can be, they pale in comparison to widespread disasters that require protracted levels of peak performance. Earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters rank among situations that may require days or weeks to resolve. The case of Hurricane Katrina was a prime example of the demands placed by extraordinarily long deployments.
It is these disaster scenarios that can be best addressed by a Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce (TERT), consisting of trained dispatch personnel that can be brought into a stricken area to assist. To some degree, TERT can be looked at as a form of tactical dispatching. While I am uncertain of the exact origin of tactical dispatch, it is certainly possible to say that the concept has been well tested in California, where communicators — much like the apparatus taskforces themselves — are assembled from statewide resources to combat forest and wildland fires. While tactical dispatchers typically operate from mobile command posts, TERT teams often staff the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) of the jurisdiction in charge of the call. Another critical difference is that while tactical dispatchers concentrate on the management of a single event, TERT personnel typically assist in handling all 911 calls in the community.
The original concept for TERT was spawned in North Carolina in September 2001, when representatives from six centers met to begin initial discussions. In 2003, a taskforce was deployed for the first time as the result of a pharmaceutical plant explosion; in 2005, dispatchers from North Carolina traveled to Louisiana to provide relief to storm-ravaged areas on their first interstate activation. In 2008, assistance was sent to the Hyde County area of coastal North Carolina for a wildfire that burned for weeks and consumed well in excess of 40,000 acres. Smoke from the blaze was so thick that a shift in wind patterns generated almost 500 calls to 911 in one day in the state capital of Raleigh, several hours away.