A phased approach to improve radio communications

Few arguments against using plain language and common terminology are defensible anymore

The world is more interconnected than ever. In real time, most of us can communicate and collaborate between jurisdictions and emergency response disciplines. We have the ability to communicate in a way that was never believed possible. What does this mean to the public safety community? It means that more timely and clear communications is the expectation of new recruits and of the citizens we serve.

Anyone who has seen a police show has surely heard someone say, “10-4” into a land mobile radio. In the 1940s the deployment of two-way radio systems began to overload early, single-channel radio systems. This was a major factor that gave birth to what the emergency response community knows as coded language — the use of 10-codes. Most citizens are not aware that many emergency response agencies have their own unique coded language. While TV may have popularized a defacto standard for what “10-4” means across the country, in fact, there are no agreed upon standard codes to communicate outside of one’s own organization. As a result, unique codes used throughout the United States represent a significant barrier in creating seamless, clear communications among public safety officials, mostly in the law enforcement arena. As a result, a trend in public safety communications is toward the use of plain language1.

Living Through History
Some will argue that we are trying to fix something that’s not broken. Before I address that myth, I need to give a historical view of my research and personal experience on this matter. On January 13, 1982, a Boeing 737 — Air Florida Flight 90 — crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. Plunging into the Potomac River during a severe snowstorm, the crash killed 74 persons onboard and four on the ground. Just prior to crash, the National Capital Region experienced severe blizzard conditions and most roads were closed due to icy conditions. Traffic was pretty much at a standstill. Those who live in DC are probably saying, “So what’s new, traffic is pretty much always at a standstill around here,” but the ugly fact of the matter is that first responders took a very long time to arrive on the scene because of the weather and gridlock.

As if that wasn’t enough, during the crash, Metro suffered its first fatal subway crash, which meant that the busiest airport, busiest highway, and busiest subway line were all closed simultaneously, essentially paralyzing the area.

I mention this scenario because most who argue that we are trying to fix something that is not broken tend to be from rural or suburban areas who tend to think large scale and/or routine mutual aid is mostly for metropolitan areas. A large aircraft or weather disaster can happen anywhere, anytime. When it does, public safety will come out in very large numbers to help out. That’s what we do. “That’s how we roll.”

In studying some of the after-action reports of the Air Florida disaster and related events, I discovered there were 19 agencies named as responders, all on unique radio systems that did not allow them to talk to one another. But even if the technology would have allowed it back then (today, for the most part, it does), I doubt they would have been able to understand each other’s unique radio codes.

Where Are We Now?
So today, while technology has given us the ability to talk to one another, regardless of discipline, radio system and/or municipality, some still could not work in a large-scale, mutual aid environment because not everyone has adopted plain language for land mobile radios.

Plain language, a government-wide initiative, has been discussed in the public safety community for a long time. Emergency response communities across the country are beginning to reduce — or eliminate all together — the codes they use in favor of plain language. In December 2006 the National Incident Management System (NIMS) issued an alert mandating that first responders use plain language in multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response2. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) established the Plain Language Working Group in April 2009. This group was comprised of more than 40 public safety officials from across the country representing multiple disciplines. The intent of this working group was to identify lessons learned from those emergency response organizations that transitioned from coded language to plain language.

This group recognized that simply encouraging a transition to plain language is not enough to improve communications. It concluded that common language must be identified in order to effectively eliminate codes while maintaining the interoperability required during response. On September 10, 2009 NIMS issued another alert, reinforcing the requirement to use plain language for mutual aid events, stating “the use of plain language in emergency response is a matter of public safety, especially the safety of first responders and those affected by the incident.”3

It is not that hard to transition. In my estimation, it takes two key ingredients — willingness to do it and finding the right person(s) to get it done. In 2006 when I was the chair of the Virginia State Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC)4, I made it a priority to identify and adopt common language protocols in the Commonwealth of Virginia for daily operations in preparation for major emergency situations. Working on the Initiative Action Team (IAT) alongside many practitioners from many disciplines (as well as all public safety associations in the Commonwealth), we considered three options:

1) Status Quo
2) All plain language
3) A hybrid approach

The Hybrid consisted of mostly plain language with a very limited set of standardized radio codes. The IAT facilitated many face-to-face meetings and conference calls to determine recommendations and continue to define the terms and recommendations. In addition, we sent out questionnaires to all of Virginia’s public safety agencies.

We wanted to learn each agency’s current radio codes and which they would you be willing to convert to plain language. What we discovered was that the problem was much bigger than we anticipated. Some agencies had up to three different sets of radio codes within their organization, for example: “10-4,” “Signal 20,” and “Code 5.” Throughout the Commonwealth, very few matched.

Bomb Throwers
While there was some disagreement among the IAT members at first, in the end, most agreed that humans respond according to training and repetition and that transition to plain language would only be successful if the protocol was mandated and used day-to-day. A compromise was reached with the “bomb throwers” on the team, those who alleged this change was going to get law enforcement personnel killed. The majority agreed there are a few situations where coded LMR language was necessary for personnel safety. Therefore, we selected the second option.

But how do you make a change in an organization that is this drastic and avoid confusion? A change of this magnitude was not going to occur overnight and not without occasional slip ups.

During the early stages, the IAT envisioned confusion, such as, “Did he mean the new 10 code or the old 10 code?” To address this concern, we lined up all the radio codes that all agencies in the Commonwealth used and determined “signal” was the least used. To make a clear distinction to those making this change that someone was using the new code, it had to sound foreign.

We had to prepare each agency with a “coat of armor” when they walked into roll call to talk about this new change. There were lots of myths out there and change, especially this change, is never easy in the law enforcement culture. We had to be prepared for myths such as:

• “It’s more secure” — encryption is the only secure method of communications
• “The bad guys will know what we’re saying” — most radio codes are on the Internet
• “It’s more efficient” — consider the following: “Let me have a Signal 2, Code 3 for a combative 10-17” and “Let me have a priority back-up for a combative subject” have a roughly comparable number of syllables so it does not take much more radio space to say the exact same thing in plain language that any mutual-aid officer could understand

Plain language and common terminology have been discussed in the public safety community for a long time. This issue is fraught with cultural and political barriers. Few, if any, arguments against using plain language and common terminology are defensible anymore. Have you taken the time to listen to your dispatchers? Many jump in and out in their use of plain language versus codes. As plain language continues to gain traction the risk is that we will fall in to the trap of believing that we are communicating more efficiently. We are only safer if the public safety community knows what their partners — be it within discipline or across jurisdictions — are saying along with the intent behind the words during the response. If plain language is critical to interoperability and the implementation of NIMS, common terminology and its use in daily operations is an absolute necessity.

In the end, I credit many law enforcement leaders who had the vision to forecast back then that this was the right thing to do when the majority did not. Leaders such as Colonel Flaherty, Superintendent of the VA State Police, who in November of 2006 decided this was the direction his organization was going in and was very much the first “domino” in the “domino effect” throughout the Commonwealth. Leaders like Chief Doug Scott of the Arlington Police Department, Chief David Roher of the Fairfax County Police Department, and Director William O’Toole of the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy who had the vision to ensure coordinated training in all roll calls on plain language and served as spokespersons on the importance of a common language protocol.

They all agreed this would require a phased in approach — that it would not occur overnight — and that occasional slip ups would occur along the way. But most important, what these leaders loaned to this process was their philosophical point of view, that it was the right thing to do! Today, the public and elected officials are less forgiving when they learn public safety still cannot communicate effectively during mutual aid events. Finally, they agreed it was simply unreasonable to expect law enforcement officers to instantly switch to a common radio language and protocol during a stressful mutual aid event once they become interoperable with another agency.

As agencies transition from coded language to plain language they are developing their own list of terms. This is creating a new challenge: each discipline developing its own list of terms and definitions for daily operations which may conflict with the terms and definitions of neighboring disciplines or jurisdictions. During a mutual aid event this could result in delayed communication, confusion, or both. While the use of plain language is preferable to the use of codes, it is important to recognize that at present there is no agreed-upon common terms and associated definitions.

Simply said, there are no common terms to define the public safety community’s plain language! Having a fireman yell “fire” to a policeman may not provide the necessary response. A fireman grabs a hose while a policeman pulls his gun. While this may be an overly simplistic analogy, it does not take much thought to realize that a minimal set of common terms are required for true interoperability as well as for the safety of our responders.

In closing, I would like to say this transition is starting to occur but at different paces in different regions with unique protocols. Can you imagine this transition taking place on the east coast and another on the west coast following different protocols? During the rollout waves, they are likely to meet somewhere in the middle, say Kansas. We will have to address this issue all over again, but fortunately, this time it will be on a much smaller scale!

1 Some people also refer to the term “plain language” as “plain English” or “plain text
2 Visit FEMA.gov for more 
3 Visit FEMA.gov for more
4 Visit Virginia.gov for more

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