DHS Wants First Responders to Speak in Plain English

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to persuade local first responders to use plain English at all times when communicating rather than relying on the common code system in use across the United States, reports the Ventura County Star of California.

Police across the country use "10-codes," a coding system where numbers translate into commonly-agreed upon phrases, such as "10-4," which commonly means "affirmative." The problem, according to the Star, is that the system is not universal, with certain numerical codes representing very different things to other agencies.

This led to so much widespread confusion during the 9-11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina that the federal government now requires all state and local agencies to talk in plain English during multi-agency responses if they want DHS grants .

DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban told Security Management that sometimes dispatchers may have to tell first responders to switch from coded language to plain English when a situation calls for it. This is one of the reasons the emergency response community is pushing for plain-English communications in all situations.

"Ultimately, the way responders train and communicate daily will impact the way they will communicate in a mutual aid incident," Kuban said. "If emergency responders are trained to use plain English in all situations and incidents, we can alleviate the risk of delayed communication or miscommunication during a mutual aid incident."

Kuban said that 16 states and territories have identified plans to move to plain English.

The Star describes an incident a few years ago that proponents use to illustrate the impact plain English can have during a state-based emergency.

[Chris] Essid [director of the Office of Emergency Communications for DHS] and others point to a 2005 incident in Missouri in which a local police officer radioed late one night to his dispatcher that he had just seen a state highway patrol officer’s car with a door open stopped along a highway. The officer said he was going to go back to make sure the patrolman was OK.

It turns out the Missouri Highway Patrol officer was lying in a ditch, barely alive, having been shot eight times with a rifle. The local police dispatcher decided to use plain English in sending out a call for help.

Had she said “10-33,” her department’s code for “officer down,” it would have meant something very different to the Missouri Highway Patrol: “traffic backup.” Instead, every state trooper within miles responded, and the officer lived.

In many cases, “being able to communicate quickly and effectively can mean the difference between life and death,” Essid said.

Mike Williams, assistant chief of the Chattanooga Police Department in Tennessee, told National Public Radio in October that his agency switched to plain English a few years back when local officials realized they couldn't effectively communicate during tornadoes and floods.

"You had 10 different radio systems, and everybody had different codes," he said. "It was a nightmare."

But not everyone agrees with the push toward plain English. 10-codes allow police officers to talk to each other without signaling to the public exactly what they're talking about. John Miller, a sergeant with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, told the Star that plain English can do more harm than good at certain times.

In some situations, using plain language is not a good idea, he said. An officer, for example, might not want a relative to hear something horrific right away at the scene, such as the death of a loved one. An officer might also want to speak in code when he or she has encountered a dangerous suspect, he said.

“You don’t want to tip someone off and endanger your own life or that of someone else.”

Scanning the comments on, which posted the Star's article, criticism heavily outnumbered acclaim.

Many commenters said rather than use plain English, a universal, standardized 10-code should be developed.

Others complained it was one more instance of the federal government trying to tell localities what to do.

"Taking away 10-codes would be disastrous," Ballz posted. "Yet more federal interference on the local level...if you can imagine that."

And many agreed with Miller, saying 10-codes preserve the ability of officers to communicate with each other without tipping off those around them or listening in.

According to RO in Texas:

In a crises [sic],with multiple agencies,okay, I can see the need for plain talk. However, recently, we tried the plain english thing. A dispatcher radioed to one of our officers that the person he had detained was "wanted". Guess what? the suspect bolted when the officer lost the element of surprise. All a bad guy needs to hear is that it's not just a traffic stop or whatever. The problem with the peeple [sic] pushing this is they're clueless and have no idea of what police work really consists of.

♦ Photo of police officer with radio by MNicoleM/Flickr


Code Confusion

As a licensed Amateur Radio operator (Amateur Extra--the highest class of license offered for Amateurs), a security officer/sometimes leader, and an emergency management trainee, the communications issue is highly important to me.

To emphasize code confusion, "10-4," in my experience, is more "acknowledged" than "affirmative." Note that even this incredibly common code is up for dispute as to its meaning, and must rely on context clues for clarity.

I agree that for certain communications, it is better to use codes and have some hope to hide the meaning of a communication, as described in some of the comments noted in the article. However, this treads into a gray area in long-standing federal communications law: even for police and fire, concealing the content or meaning of a transmission is generally illegal. The exceptions are: 1. when an encryption or coding scheme is published and available (as is the case with digital, multiplexed and trunking modes as well as 10-codes, 11-codes, 900-codes, etc.); and 2. under specific circumstances that mandate secrecy or privacy (police--special investigations and operations--and military secrets related).

Because of the transparency requirements--and because scanner junkies can eventually decipher the codes anyway--a lot of the criminal element knows and recognizes the code for "felony warrant" (or whatever), and if they're inclined to rabbit, will still do so. So much for the element of surprise.

Codes may work well for keeping "normal" people calm and out of the loop on reports of mortality, etc., and there is value there. And not all criminals know the codes, so it behooves to use codes in such ticklish situations, on the chance that it will indeed retain an element of control and surprise.

Also, for the reasons noted above, a "universal code" is pointless from a meaning-concealment angle, and frankly, given ego and "turf" issues among agencies, agreement is a virtual impossibility. It therefore only makes sense to let agencies use their codes as they see fit for single-agency and single-jurisdiction incidents, and to continue to encourage "plain text" and standardization in general as much as is practicable, especially for routine operations. This is what I already see happening in the more advanced agencies.

A personal comment on codes: I've worked in organizations where folks thought that "throwing codes" was what it was all about. The codes are officially called brevity codes, but I've seen simple reports turn into 4-code verbosities that string together to make a "sentence" longer than plain text would have been, and with no need of concealing meaning. That's absurd and amateurish.

I don't think there's any doubt that plain text is necessary for multi-agency and multi-jurisdiction incidents. Practicing a general rule of plain text is only reasonable, given that "how you train is how you'll perform under pressure." But to dispense with codes altogether or to attempt to forcibly standardize codes is unrealistic and probably highly counterproductive.

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