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Addressing Public Safety’s Need for Plain Language and Common Terminology

March 1, 2010

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issue of On Scene

IAFC On Scene: March 1, 2010

With the astonishing broad-based adoption of technology use in our daily lives, it’s increasingly clear that the world is more interconnected than ever. A majority of working Americans have cell phones or personal digital assistants. Broadband and wireless technologies are pervasive. Social networks, once thought of as a Gen-Y phenomenon, are now finding the biggest increase in users in the 65 demographic.

What does all this mean?

Coded language refers to the use of 10-codes or other related systems that are in place to communicate.
However, as agencies transition from coded language to plain language, they’re developing their own lists of terms to use in place of coded language in daily operations. This will create a new challenge: one agency’s list of terms and definitions for daily operations may conflict with the terms and definitions of neighboring jurisdictions or agencies.

During a mutual-aid event this could result in delayed communication or confusion. While the use of plain language is preferable to the use of codes, as required by NIMS, it’s important to recognize that at present there is no agreed-upon standard terminology or associated definitions.

Simply said, there are no common terms identified as the public-safety community’s plain language!

If plain language is a critical component to interoperability, common terminology is an absolute necessity for seamless communications.

In April of 2009, the Office of Emergency Communications established the Plain Language Working Group (PLWG), composed of over 40 stakeholders from across the country and representing multiple disciplines. The purpose of the PLWG was to provide an update to the Plain Language Guide published in July 2008.

The PLWG was also asked to make recommendations for future plain-language initiatives related to plain language. The number-one recommendation was to collaborate with federal, state, local and tribal partners to pursue an initiative to develop a National Standard Public Safety Radio Protocol (NSPSRP) for use in mutual-aid events.

The National Standard Public Safety Radio Protocol

Three-phased approach: Migrating to public-safety plain language.The goal of the Protocol initiative is to develop common terminology that will be communicated to agencies across the country to support them as they transition from coded language to plain language. The new set of terms developed by the Protocol initiative will be developed consistent with NIMS to support increased adoption of plain language in daily operations and to enhance interoperability during mutual-aid events.

This initiative is the next step in our country’s migration from coded language to something easier to learn, remember and apply during times of cross-jurisdictional or cross-discipline response. To accomplish the goal, a three-phased approach is proposed:

  • Phase 1 - Objective: Develop—Starter Set of Common Terminology (see below for a list of Phase 1 tasks)
  • Phase 2 - Objective: Launch—Marketing Campaign
  • Phase 3 - Objective: Maintenance—Support Increased Common Terminology Adoption

Conclusion

Plain language and common terminology—across jurisdictions and disciplines—have been discussed in the public-safety community for a long time. This issue is wrought with cultural and political barriers. Few if any arguments against using plain language or common terminology are defensible anymore. However, as more and more public-safety agencies move away from coded-substitutions, the country is at risk of falling into the wrong belief that we’re safer than we were with the codes.

We’re only safer if the public-safety community knows what their public-safety coworkers from across jurisdictional and disciplines boundaries are saying and what the intent is behind the words during a response. Having a firefighter yell “fire” to a police officer may not provide the necessary response. A firefighter grabs a hose while a police officer pulls his gun.

While this is a simple analogy, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that a minimal set of common terms are required for true interoperability. Anything else will lead us to this same conversation again in the future because the public-safety community still won’t be interoperable even as more and more agencies begin to use plain language.

Alan Caldwell is senior advisor to the IAFC’s government relations department.