Mutual Aid for Emergency Dispatchers

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.

From smaller local beginnings, the program has proceeded to become a truly national effort. In 2006, some 30 agencies in Illinois joined in a statewide initiative and benefitted from training provided by a $300,000 anti-terrorism grant. Similar taskforces have now been created in many states. The importance of having a sufficient number of trained telecommunicators available during an emergency cannot be overstated, and has been proven time and time again through a variety of incidents. In addition to overwhelming call volumes, disasters may also bring destruction and devastation to the lives and property of public safety personnel. TERT provides needed relief by helping to assume the workload while giving local dispatchers time to address personal issues. In fact, the benefits of TERT are so important that two pre-eminent organizations — the Association of Public-safety Officials (APCO) International and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) — have partnered to form the National Joint TERT Initiative (NJTI) to assist in the continued development of this concept.

TERTs have rapidly become a valuable tool for emergency managers. Issuance of memoranda of understanding and more formalized agreements help to cover liability issues and reimbursement for services through inclusion in the Emergency Mutual Aid Compact (EMAC). Agencies wishing to participate in TERT or seeking additional information should contact local chapters of APCO or NENA, or check the parent websites at or

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.