TERT program puts dispatchers on scene when communication is critical

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The cliché of "being in the right place at the right time" has been used to illustrate how some people are simple recipients of
good luck.

A new team of dispatchers in Blount County aren’t depending on luck to improve the speed and safety of emergency responders. The Telecommunicators Emergency Response Team is made up of six dispatchers with Blount County Emergency 911 Communications. Their job is to travel to scenes such as the Feb. 6 fire that destroyed a home on Miser Station Road.

The idea behind TERT is that in situations where a large response is needed, two dispatchers come to the scene rather than coordinate personnel from the confines of the Emergency 911 Communications Center on Louisville Road.

At the Miser Station Road fire, the TERT team helped get the Red Cross to the scene quicker and were able to divert sand to the location quicker as the water from the firefighter’s lines froze on the road.

Before TERT, when fire or law enforcement went to a disaster scene, there was no designated dispatcher or team to handle the large emergency. Dispatchers also were juggling calls for services throughout the county. Now not only are there two dispatchers devoted to the emergency, they are on the scene and can see what is happening as it occurs. "They don’t have to go through regular dispatch," said Donna Overstreet, assistant director of 911 Emergency Communications Center.

Dispatcher Susan Porter said TERT members have access to a laptop computer they take to an emergency scene, and they have access to the same information dispatchers in the 911 Emergency Communication Center have.

"Instead of us being here trying to dispatch for a scene, we’re personal dispatchers at the scene," she said. "We’re truly devoted to their needs."

The TERT members also have accountability software on their computers to show who is at the scene and what they’re doing. "We’ve taken care of accountability," Porter said.

The reason for sending two TERT dispatchers is for convenience. "Anytime they need us, we’re right there. We have one team member with the incident commander. We have two-way radios to communicate with one another," she said.

Overstreet said all three fire departments and all three law enforcement agencies have given the team 100 percent support. "Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County, they’re all behind us," she said.

The individuals involved were not rookies to emergency response. "We only used seasoned dispatchers with several years of experience," Overstreet said.

The six dispatchers went to Loudon County in August of 2006 and got their certification. "Loudon County already had this implemented. After getting lap top computers and other equipment, the Blount County TERT personnel were ready to respond on Jan. 1.

Overstreet said the TERT personnel responded to a fire on Tarpley Street where there was no loss of life, but it was a good training situation. Their second call came on Feb. 6 when fire engulfed the home of Ross Debuty on Miser Station Road in Friendsville.

"Every time they go out, we can see an improvement. Both times we’ve had nothing but good comments. They can do everything on the scene that they do here," she said.

On the TERT team are three supervisors and three dispatchers: Susie Dunn, supervisor; Donna Burnett, supervisor; Richee Kidd, supervisor; Susan Porter, Chuck Lewis and Mark "Bubba" Owensby.

Porter said the TERT personnel’s training consisted of 16 hours of class time.

The response from emergency personnel has been positive. "I think it’s a good thing. I’ve not heard anything negative," Porter said. "Someone called us their guardian angels."

Sheriff James Berrong said the program was very important in increasing effectiveness in crisis situations.

"It’s so much more effective to have someone on scene coordinating communications," he said.

Berrong said that when the new mobile command center the department received through a federal grant arrives, the TERT
personnel will be able to use it because there is a dispatch area in the center.

Jeff Caylor, Emergency 911 Communications Center director, said dispatchers get to see incidents first hand. "Information doesn’t have to be relayed," he said.

The whole concept of dispatchers responding to critical incidents started in Florida. NENA, a national emergency organization caught onto the practice, and they passed it onto to local agencies throughout the country, Caylor said.

"Anything they need, contacts or utility companies, they don’t call all the way back to dispatchers here, they do it from the scene," he said. "From our standpoint, life goes on up here. Our operations, normal daily operations are not affected at all."

Caylor said that the program cost is reasonable. "We had pretty minimal costs," he said. "We got them uniforms, walkie-talkies. It’s not a big, huge expense.,

The 911 director said that in a critical incident, someone on the team picks up a container of equipment at the 911 center on Louisville Road and meets another dispatcher or dispatchers at the scene.

Blount County Fire Department Chief Doug McClanahan said his personnel have already seen the TERT personnel in action after they responded to a fire on Tarpley Avenue and then they came to the fire on Miser Station Road in Friendsville on Feb. 6 that left four dead.

"We had already seen it help," said McClanahan. "It makes the incident commander more alert to keeping up with people.

Having that resource available to you takes a little bit of worry away because you can talk to someone quickly to get
something done. You can simply turn to them and say, ‘Can you contact this agency or get this done?’ "

Maryville Fire Department Deputy Chief David Hodges said his personnel hadn’t used the team yet, but they have trained with them. "By having the (dispatcher) where you can do face-to-face communications with them is going to make our communications quicker, more efficient," he said. "It’s a win-win for everyone."

New Alcoa Fire Department Chief Roger Robinson said his personnel also have not been on a live call with the TERT dispatchers but had trained with them. "I was real supportive of the concept when we first started it," he said. "It gives incident commanders an extra set of hands to help him because a lot of times we don’t have the manpower to help with
documentation at the scene. That’s where it’s going to really help us on larger incidents."

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