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Plain Language Not a Communications Panacea

AS FAMILIAR AS so-called “ten-codes” are—think of the times you’ve heard a police officer either in person or on television say “10-4” when he or she means “affirmative”—these types of code systems are slowly being phased out of the nation’s police departments.

Many emergency response agencies have switched from code talk to plain language because they were required to by a 2006 National Incident Management System (NIMS) Alert. NIMS stated that emergency responders were to switch to plain language for emergency operations to be eligible for certain homeland security funding.

The code systems were not standardized across agencies, however, which is why they presented a communication problem when multiple federal, state, and local agencies attempted to work together during an incident. The change has been filtering down from incident responders and fire departments to other agencies like police departments, and though initiated to facilitate crisis communications, the practice is migrating to use in everyday situations.

There are several reasons why codes evolved in police departments. First, they cut down on radio traffic, as saying a numeric code is often quicker than describing whatever an officer is doing. They also provided a veil of privacy for officers.

The Dallas Police Department (DPD) recently joined the growing ranks of departments making the switch. In March, the DPD switched from code speak to plain language, and it has stopped teaching codes in its academies.

“Whenever we have to cross over into jurisdictions or if we ever need assistance from outside agencies, we want to make it as easy as possible to communicate with those agencies in times of major disasters…. We want to be able to speak the same language,” says DPD spokesman Kevin Janse.

Just ditching codes and using daily language doesn’t necessarily solve the communication problem, however. Speaking at the GovSec conference in Washington, D.C., Glen Rudner, a hazardous materials officer in northern Virginia, noted that different agencies are not using language in the same way, and different phrases have multiple meanings.

For example, Rudner points out that law enforcement officers might use the terms “inner and outer” perimeters, while “in the emergency response field, we delineate further than just inner and outer. We go right to the hot zone, being the area where the incident or problem is; the warm zone, which can be considered the middle buffer; and then the cold zone, where all of the major activities take place. The inner perimeter is all three of those to the law enforcement community, and then the outer perimeter is their buffer zone for protection.”

The government recognizes the need for some guidance to avoid having emergency communications lost in translation. DHS is expected to release new plain language guidance later this year.