Coded language systems have existed for decades and have been extremely useful, particularly for public-safety agencies, because they incorporate a degree of brevity and security in radio communications. However, in current times, coded language is no longer providing the security it once did, nor is it allowing first responders to communicate effectively when involved in mutual-aid situations. In fact, partly because of the major increase over the past six years in mutual-aid agreements between political jurisdictions – with each agency in each jurisdiction retaining its own set of coded language (typically ten codes for law-enforcement agencies) – the result has been considerable confusion when the various agencies seek to communicate with one another. 

Because of this problem, federal officials responsible for the National Incident Management System (NIMS) released guidance instructing all states to change the way responders communicate over radios during mutual-aid situations, abandoning their disparate coded language systems in favor of plain English.  Responding to this federal guidance, the Commonwealth of Virginia embarked on what became a year-long effort to establish a common-language protocol for its own agencies.  

At the beginning, this effort uncovered a clear lack of agreement between the Commonwealth’s first-responder agencies on the use of plain English vs. coded language. To cope with this situation, an Initiative Action Team (IAT – which included key practitioners from across the state) was formed to discuss the issues involved, conduct research related to public-safety needs, and recommend the final protocol required by the NIMS mandate. The IAT conducted two surveys to collect information on existing coded-language systems, and met several times over nine months to determine what the common-language protocol should be. An Unpopular But Necessary Buy-In Required The result of the IAT’s work was the creation of both a statewide common-language protocol and a political/economic “buy-in“ that was considered necessary for the protocol to be successful. 

By establishing a partnership among political jurisdictions One of the lessons learned was that a common-language can be successful only if it is used in routine day-to-day operations and not just mutual-aid situations and state agencies, the common-language protocol was in fact adopted, within its first year of existence, by major state agencies, specifically including the Virginia State Police, and by numerous localities and regions. The buy-in, which entails funding for outreach and training efforts and requires adoption of the protocol in order to receive state grant funding, proved to be important for the adoption of the protocol. In addition, an internal promotion effort was developed to encourage adoption of the protocol by all public-safety agencies, One of the lessons learned by the IAT members was that a common-language can be successful only if it is used in routine day-to-day operations and not just mutual-aid situations.  

When under stress, first responders tend to go back to their training – if they were trained on a 10-code system, for example, they are most likely to use that same system in a time of serious need. The IAT recognized that a requirement to use a common language in day-to-day operations would not be popular with all agencies, but was committed to supporting the common-language initiative. The team members did, however, determine four scenarios that may require coded language to ensure responder safety. 

These four scenarios include situations: 

(a) involving immediate danger; 

(b) requiring backup and/or other assistance; 

(c) taking a subject into custody; and/or 

(d) entailing sensitive information. 

The most important end results of this effort by the Commonwealth of Virginia are that the protocol: (a) enables public-safety agencies to respond more effectively to difficult situations; and (b) helps ensure responder safety by avoiding or at least reducing the chaos created by the use of differing codes. The IAT effort also opened previously closed doors between agencies by encouraging them to work together, and thus created an overall atmosphere of greater interoperability within the Commonwealth.

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Chris Essid

Chris Essid is the Virginia commonwealth interoperability coordinator within the Governor’s Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, and in that post is the ex-officio leader of statewide efforts to improve voice and data interoperability at the local, state, and federal levels of government in Virginia. He also serves on the SAFECOM Emergency Response Council, Commonwealth Preparedness Working Group, State Interoperability Executive and Advisory Committees, and the National Capital Region Programmatic Working Group for Interoperability, and Chairs the All-Hazard Consortium Interoperability Committee.  An Army veteran and former Marine Corps employee, he holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Kentucky and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma.

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