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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Plain-Talk versus 10-Code

Plain-Talk versus 10-Code

The Hermiston Police Department has recently changed their policy regarding emergency communications, returning to the time-honored, traditional yet inconsistent, 10-Code System.

I'll bet a couple of doughnuts that the only people vitally interested in this news will be police officers, firefighters and medics. Oh, and all of us scanner-radio addicts.

This earthshaking news hit the newspaper just a week ago, meriting one 24-word sentence. After briefly describing Acting Chief of Police Jason Edmiston's summary of the year's crime events, the reporter added this tantalizing tidbit:

"He also reported HPD will revert back to the 10-code, a standard communication system used by police, that was changed after Sept. 11, 2001."

(Source: Hermiston faces 'anemic' revenue for 2011-12, Holly Dillemuth, Hermiston Herald, January 24, 2012)

I realize that the news is tantalizing only to a narrow slice of Hermiston's population, but I'd like to discuss the issues involved.

I was a volunteer reserve police officer in Boardman, decades ago. I served as a volunteer firefighter/medic with three different departments over a span of about 25 years. I became very familiar with the 10-code system, at least with our brand of 10-code. Every department had a different meaning assigned to the numeric codes. That inconsistency persists today. Right now, the 10-code system of the Hermiston Police Department is slightly different than that of Umatilla or Boardman or Pendleton. The Oregon State Police department uses a substantially different set of codes. (See Oregon State Police 12-code)

I was an active firefighter in Idaho when 9-11 struck. Years later, following the 9/11 Commission Report, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) pressed hard for better methods of communication. One of those recommendations is called "Plain Language". Our fire department called it plain talk.

The essence of Plain Language or "plain talk" is to standardize all the emergency service messages that are used by the dispatcher and emergency workers. Rather than using numeric codes to represent often-used messages, the Plain Language system uses words alone.

Late in the year of 2006, NIMS issued an alert emphasizing the importance of Plain Language. Here are a few snippets from that alert:

"It is important that responders and incident managers use common terminology. There simply is little or no room for misunderstanding in an emergency situation...

"The use of plain language in emergency response is matter of public safety, especially the safety of first responders and those affected by the incident...

"While the NIMS Integration Center does not require plain language for internal operations, it strongly encourages it, as it is important to practice everyday terminology and procedures that will need to be used in emergency incidents and disasters. NIMS implementation is a long-term effort and it is probably not possible to persuade everyone to change ingrained habits overnight. But we do hope that over time, everyone will understand the important of using common terminology, that is, plain language, every day...

"It is required that plain language be used for multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction and multi-discipline events, such as major disasters and exercises...

"The FY 2006 NIMS Implementation requirement to use plain language does not abolish the use of 10-codes in everyday department communications..."

(Source: www.fema.gov)

According to Acting Chief Jason Edmiston, the Hermiston Police Department began using Plain Language in 2010, perhaps two years ago. Now, the Department will return to using their numeric 10-Code as their primary system.

I sent a message to Acting Chief Jason Edmiston today and asked for more information. He responded immediately by telephone and we had a cordial, comprehensive and productive conversation. I was completely satisfied by Chief Edmiston's response, and I'm confident that the department will be assessing how the policy affects public safety.

However, I believe that open discussion of the differences and usages of the two communication systems will benefit the community. To that end, here are some concerns and questions I expressed to Acting Chief Jason Edmiston:

To my mind it seems a mistake to set aside the Plain Language system. I foresee it being difficult for our officers to switch to plain language when it becomes necessary. I hope the change is the result of considering what is best for safety and effectiveness, and not solely for the convenience or comfort of the officers.

A quick internet search garners many links to forums, resources, likes and dislikes, pros and cons regarding Plain Language and 10-Codes. I am struck by the number of sites...reputable, public-safety-oriented, conservative sites...that recommend Plain Language.

"Plain language is the future of law enforcement communication. Transitioning from 10-codes to plain language is not difficult, but it requires cultural change within the organization. Leadership from commanders and supervisors, along with buy-in from officers, is the key to success. As with all change, the use of plain language improves with time." - Major David Staton, Louisiana State Police

(Source: www.safecomprogram.gov

"In Independence, Mo., 10-33 was code for traffic backup. In 2005 an officer passed a state trooper who was laying 20 feet away in a ditch, barely alive, shot eight times. When the officer from Independence called dispatch to report what he'd found, this is how the dispatcher relayed that information to the State Highway Patrol: "They have a trooper in the ditch, they are ordering the ambulance, they are also trying to get Life Flight." Instead of using code (e.g. 10-33, which to Missouri Highway Patrol meant traffic backup) dispatch switched to plain English and every state trooper for 50 miles came running. The officer lived, and the suspect was caught in less than an hour."

(Source: Plain Talk Eases Radio Police Radio Codes Off the Air, National Public Radio, October 13, 2009)

An example of the inconsistency and variety of 10-Code systems can be seen in the numeric code, "10-1". Depending upon the agency, that code could mean,

  • Poor Reception
  • Officer Needs Help
  • Unable to Copy
  • Call your command
  • Message to all units

(Source: centerforplainlanguage.org)

Typical police 10-codes use numeric codes to represent often-used phrases. The Plain Language system simply deletes the numeric code, leaving the brief phrases.

For example, a frequent radio transmission from officer to dispatcher would identify the officer, specify location and request vehicle registration and arrest history during a routine traffic stop. Using 10-code, the transmission would sound something like this:

Dispatch, Officer 13-18, 10-20 fifth and main, 10-27, 10-29 Oregon ABC-555.

Using Plain Language, the transmission would sound like this:

Dispatch, Officer 13-18, my location is fifth and main, request vehicle registration, arrests and warrants, Oregon ABC-555.

A typical list of police 10-codes can be seen here: www.einvestigator.com

My experience as a police officer is severely limited. I volunteered as a reserve officer for one year, never worked without a veteran officer with me, and I worked only 16 hours a month. It was an interesting, worthwhile experience, but it would be utterly presumptious for me to try to see things from the point of a real officer.

However, allow me to be utterly presumptious for a moment.

The appeal, and the benefits, of the traditional 10-code system seem to be for the sake of convenience. Officers will repeat the same set of radio transmissions dozens of times during each shift, hundreds of times over a week's time. Four syllables of numeric code, "10-33", can communicate 14 syllables of plain language speech:

10-33 = emergency traffic follows, hold routine messages

Allowing numeric codes to represent entire phrases can reduce the distraction that plain language speech can cause. Tongue-twisting, often-repeated, difficult to pronounce phrases are eliminated, replaced by short, easy-to-remember combinations of numbers.

I think I understand why our police department, as well as many others, reserve Plain Language for major incidents involving multiple agencies. I cannot easily argue against the hard-won, personal experience of veteran police officers who prefer to use 10-codes for routine, daily radio traffic.

However...

I do think there is potential for public misunderstanding of this policy change. I think there is potential for serious consequences during a major incident if Plain Language is not second-nature to our officers. Unless Plain Language is used daily, in routine communication, it could become awkward and ineffective when it is truly needed.

I found two interesting articles relating to the issue:

"Accident vs. collision vs. 10-50? I bet you work for a police department, not a fire agency (more on that later). There is a trend toward plain language-and for good reason. 10 codes vary..."

(Read more here: psc.apcointl.org)

"The use of codes - particularly agency-specific and tencodes - is a barrier when it comes to transmitting information. While codes may ideally reduce the length of transmissions, in practice the time gained is lost in repeated messages and explanations of unfamiliar terms. Codes or terms used by one jurisdiction or discipline may be incompatible with those used by neighboring agencies. Communications during mutual aid events should be in plain language to avoid miscommunication and confusion, improve interoperability, and enhance public safety..."

(Read more here: pssb.mt.gov)

Acting Chief Jason Edmiston responded with carefully considered arguments that do seem reasonable. He emphasized that Plain Language will be used when necessary, in accordance with all state and federal government recommendations and requirements. Chief Edmiston expected that the officers would have little trouble reverting to Plain Language when the need arises.

I realize that there is a huge difference between the ways police and fire and emergency medical technicians communicate within their own working groups. I've experienced firsthand how police officers will tailor their communication style to fit the audience...when they are talking to us fire grunts, they know how to dumb-down (make that "accomodate") their cop-speak, and I mean no disrespect to either group...I AM a fire grunt (used to be, anyway), and our emergency communication style IS much different than theirs.

I finished my conversation with Acting Chief Jason Edmiston feeling good. I appreciated his sincere, thoughtful responses to my questions and concerns. I have no desire to second-guess the management of our emergency services. It would be a bad mistake to think that the public should have direct influence over the details of how the police department operates. Much more important are the results of that management.

The debate regarding Plain Language versus 10-Codes is healthy, interesting and important. I'm confident that the Hermiston Police Department will continue to monitor, evaluate and implement necessary changes in all aspects of their...OUR...public safety organization.

My final words on the matter?

Dispatch, 13-18, 10-42, 10-13...

Image provided by dave conner, www.norconpipeband.co.uk, Creative Commons License.

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