TERT Responds When 911 Needs a Backup

In the aftermath of the recent storms that dumped heavy rain on western North Carolina, a Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce (TERT) was deployed to support the Haywood County Communications Center, in providing some relief for the telecommunicators there who worked through the storm and aftermath with little time for rest or relief. In addition to being an Emergency Management watch analyst with the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management 24-Hour Watch, Marianne Nicolaysen is Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) certified and gladly took up the challenge of being on the taskforce. 

While working as part of the TERT, Nicolaysen received administrative and 911 calls, including from a distraught woman who advised that the caller’s mother, approximately 50 years old, was acting strangely and having difficulty breathing; they were at a rest stop on Interstate 40 and the situation was deteriorating. To make matters more difficult a toddler was in the car. As Nicolaysen began to attempt a breathing diagnostic on the mother, which is a way to count the rate of respirations to determine if someone is breathing effectively, it became obvious that she was no longer breathing at all. Following the protocol for a subject in cardiac arrest she began giving instructions for the caller, who she estimated to be in her 20s, to start CPR while routing the call to a dispatcher. 

“Some modification was necessary, as she was unable to get her mother out of the car, but the caller had her young child hold the phone so I could continue to give her directions while she began chest compressions,” Nicolaysen said. “Once CPR is in progress, a lot of the job of a telecommunicator is just to provide continued encouragement to the caller to continue compressions and reassurance that help is coming.” 

Nicolaysen directed her through a few minutes of CPR until the Haywood County paramedics arrived on scene, and shortly later, they advised that they were able to locate a pulse on the patient.

“Unfortunately, doing CPR over the phone is a fairly regular occurrence as a telecommunicator and there have been times in my career where it might occur multiple times in a week or even a day,” Nicolaysen explains. “The EMD protocols have a structured script with CPR instructions, which helps you to be concise in the moment, but it is common to have to think creatively, such as in this situation with trying to get the patient as flat as possible in a vehicle.” 

Nicolaysen added that there are other challenges common on a TERT deployment such as using a CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system that you've never used, being unfamiliar with the geography or landmarks of the area, or even having a different phone system than your regular workplace. 

She adds that despite the unfortunate circumstances, TERT deployments allow opportunity for relationship-building between agencies. During her time on this particular TERT deployment she was able to connect a Haywood County sheriff's deputy with the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) Criminal Apprehension Program for access to detailed cell phone forensics on a flood victim.  The CAP works to locate hard-to-find fugitives, homicide and drug trafficking suspects and missing/endangered persons at the request of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

Nicolaysen’s career in emergency management began as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington state, where she did three years of service under a Homeland Security program called Ready Corps, working to improve rural disaster preparedness. After several years of grant management focused on bioterrorism and pandemic planning, she relocated to North Carolina and participated on the communications side of Emergency Management as a 911 liaison to the Durham County Emergency Operations Center during both hurricane and winter storm activations. In the seven years since becoming a telecommunicator she has volunteered with other emergency response organizations including the American Red Cross and a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). She has been a watch analyst with NCEM for 10 months and says she works with an amazing group of people. The deployment to Haywood County was her first opportunity to participate with TERT. 

While being a part of TERT is not part of the normal duties of watch analysts, both her supervisor, 24-Hour Watch Manager, Amanda Winans and the Statewide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC), Greg Hauser, have actively encouraged the watch analysts to seek ongoing training opportunities and to look for ways to better serve NCEM partners across the state.

The TERT program is designed to support and supplement, as needed, staffing at Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), also known as 911 centers, in their time of need. Whether additional staffing is needed to assist with elevated call volume due to a large disaster, or supplemental staffing is needed to maintain continuity of PSAP operations while a center’s telecommunicators take essential time off to deal with their own disaster-related needs, trained TERT telecommunicators can be deployed to assist. 

North Carolina has taken a unique approach to the training and development of TERT, combining TERT and Incident Tactical Dispatcher (INTD) training, an Incident Command System (ICS) position. Because the technical skills required for both roles significantly overlap, North Carolina teaches one class that covers both curriculums. Once students successful complete the class and their assigned position task books, they are state-certified deployable TERT and INTD assets. TERT/INTD members are an integral part of the State’s Communications Unit (COMU) and are the most requested COMU position for deployments.