Local emergency teams resist plain-language radio rules

To qualify for federal funds, first responders must agree to stop using codes like "10-4" in radio communications.

A month before the United States begins tying antiterrorism grants to recipients' observance of a new national emergency system, U.S. officials are cautioning state and local agencies against "continued resistance" to the system.

As of Oct. 1, prospective recipients of federal terrorism grants must show "good-faith efforts" to implement the National Incident Management System, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Don Jacks said Thursday. Full compliance with the system is required after a year.

With the "good-faith" deadline approaching, the federal NIMS Integration Center has issued two cautionary bulletins in the past 10 days to response agencies around the country.

"The point is that all responders at all levels use the same organizational structures, terminology, procedures and systems all the time," the center said Aug. 17 in the first of the two bulletins. "The idea is to achieve interoperability among jurisdictions and disciplines."

Created under a 2003 presidential directive on incident response, the new system is often described as the "playbook" for the related National Response Plan. Together, the two documents govern cooperation among different agencies and levels of government in a terrorist attack or other crisis.

Assigning responsibilities to different agencies and laying out common national practices for emergency operations, they replace a hodgepodge of previous plans that officials feared could make it more difficult for agencies to work together across jurisdictions and governmental levels.

In the second of the two recent bulletins, dated Aug. 23, the center addressed the NIMS requirement that emergency responders use "plain language" - rather than traditional "10-codes," such as "10-4" for "message received" - when communicating by radio.

"They've got to get in the habit of saying, 'We have a bank robbery at First and Main,' instead of, 'We've got a 10-40 at First and Main,'" Jacks said.

In the bulletin, the center warned, "Continued resistance to complying with NIMS requirements and [using] plain language will result in the loss of federal preparedness funding." The fiscal 2006 Homeland Security Department budget includes more than $3 billion in assistance to state and local emergency responders.

Police departments are concerned that officers' security could be compromised by speaking in language that suspects can readily understand, said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Of all the issues moving forward," Voegtlin said today, "I think this is the one that's going to cause the most consternation."

The integration center acknowledged it "understand[s] that the use of 10-codes is not going to be completely eliminated by October 2006" and that its goal for now is "that good-faith efforts are under way at all levels nationwide to move to plain English for all emergency operations."

Nevertheless, federal officials are making it clear that the eventual goal is the complete elimination of the codes.

"Some reporter asked me just the other day, 'Will the 10-codes just be relegated to movies and Barney Fife?'" Jacks said. "Well, yes."

The police departments say they understand the need to use plain language in interagency operations, but that police should not have to stop using 10-codes in their everyday work.

Washington should consult further with state and local agencies in order to agree on what is required of police, Voegtlin said.

"I think there is confusion about the 10-code issue," Voegtlin said. "If two people look at the same statement, they could see it two different ways."

The codes are addressed in an appendix to the main NIMS document, in a section on how to set up the communications unit of an incident command.

"Codes should not be used for radio communication," the document reads. "A clear spoken message - based on common terminology that avoids misunderstanding in complex and noisy situations - reduces the chances for error."

Although the placement of the requirement appears to support the police departments' contention that common language is required only in interagency crisis operations, the NIMS Integration Center maintains that state and local agencies must implement NIMS requirements in everyday operations in order to be capable of doing so in a catastrophe.

"The first-responder community understands that they have to practice like they play," FEMA spokesman Jacks said, "and, you know, there will be some teaching old dogs new tricks here."

In the first of the two bulletins, which did not specifically address the codes, the integration center warned, "The requirement to adopt and implement NIMS and ICS [the Incident Command System, an aspect of the NIMS approach to managing incidents] means NIMS and ICS for incident management every day." The center said it was responding to "a number of questions recently" about whether the management system could be reserved for use "during major incidents involving federal participation."

"Those who do not train for, exercise and use NIMS and ICS in their day-to-day operations will not be able to integrate their activities into a system they do not know, haven't practiced and don't use," the center said.

Voegtlin said police officers' security in routine situations, though, depends upon using codes. Plain-language radio communications can push suspects within earshot of police radios - those being apprehended by or already in the custody of an officer - to dangerous measures they might not take if they did not understand the radio communication, he said.

"The 10-codes actually serve a purpose. They serve a security purpose," he said.

As for the federal position that agencies must "practice like they play," Voegtlin said officers are already accustomed to using plain language and instructed to do so in interagency operations.

"It's not like they talk in 10-codes when they go home," he said. "They have the ability to switch languages or to switch speaking styles."

Voegtlin expressed confidence that a solution would be reached and that no antiterrorism grants would be denied over the use of the codes.

"I think this confusion is just being identified at the moment," he said. "It's just a matter of getting things clarified."