Hamilton Police go ‘live’ with plain language

Treena Ley
January 08, 2013
By Treena Ley
Interoperability can be defined as the ability for public safety agencies to function effectively and talk to one another via radio communications on demand, in real-time when needed. While many officers believe communicating with other police services and public agencies is as easy as flipping a switch, this is unfortunately not the case. Your local fire department, paramedics and even many neighboring police services use different radio systems. Multi-agency communication is further compromised by using different 10-codes. This can be problematic in joint forces operation because radio transmissions can easily be misinterpreted. The Hamilton Police Service (HPS) began preparing last year to upgrade from an unencrypted analog radio system to an encrypted digital P25 system, which enhances the ability to communicate with other emergency responders. However, it recognized that once the digital communication component was established there was still the potential for communication break-down because of the use of different 10-codes.

Interoperability can be defined as the ability for public safety agencies to function effectively and talk to one another via radio communications on demand, in real-time when needed.

While many officers believe communicating with other police services and public agencies is as easy as flipping a switch, this is unfortunately not the case. Your local fire department, paramedics and even many neighboring police services use different radio systems. Multi-agency communication is further compromised by using different 10-codes. This can be problematic in joint forces operation because radio transmissions can easily be misinterpreted.

The Hamilton Police Service (HPS) began preparing last year to upgrade from an unencrypted analog radio system to an encrypted digital P25 system, which enhances the ability to communicate with other emergency responders. However, it recognized that once the digital communication component was established there was still the potential for communication break-down because of the use of different 10-codes.

10-code history

Time and encrypted radio technology has made 10-codes, introduced in the 1930s to enable police to communicate in a "secret coded language," somewhat unnecessary. The Ontario Police Commission released a standardized phonetic alphabet and 10-code in 1975 to be used by all the province's police agencies to safeguard the confidentiality of CPIC. However, over the years individual agencies customized them, resulting in different meanings from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The HPS boarders with five police agencies and all use different codes. For example, 10-13 means 'lunch break' for Hamilton but 'advise road and weather conditions' for Halton, Brantford and the Ontario provincial police. It means 'carrying passengers for Niagara Regional Police Service' and Waterloo Regional Police do not use a 10-13 code.

The varying code meaning could easily cause confusion for incidents that cross jurisdictional lines. A Hamilton officer involved in a pursuit would be confused if the Halton dispatcher was to request their 10-13, perhaps wondering why dispatch would be asking them to take lunch!

Today, our secret 'cop-talk' is not as secretive as we would like to think. A quick Internet search provides a detailed list of the 10-codes for most police services. The HPS recognized that the need for them would no longer be vital with the new encrypted radio system and explored the opportunity of switching to plain language.

Plain language

Plain language is not an entirely new concept. The New York State Police has used 'plain talk' for the past four decades and the State of Virginia began using it in 2007.

Emergency personnel responding to the 9/11 attack were unable to communicate because agencies used different radio channels and 10-codes.

"Many emergency responders believe that the communication breakdown contributed to the deaths of many police officers and firefighters," the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) found.

"In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf States region, further emphasizing the difficulty of multi-agency emergency communication, which impeded the rescue efforts of emergency responders. Consequently, the United States Federal Management Agency has since mandated that all public safety responders must use plain language during multi-agency incidents."

While major disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina do not occur every day, daily incidents such as fires, chemical spills, vehicle pursuits and missing children require different emergency agencies to communicate with each another. Even though major multi-agency incidents are rare in Canada, they do occur. The G20 in Toronto is an excellent example of multi-agencies working together and the essential need for proper communication between police agencies.

We were surprised that Lethbridge police was the only Canadian police agency we could find that uses plain language. Members were extremely helpful in providing suggestions and input to ensure a successful launch and transition. We learned that the major issue the Lethbridge Police Service faced when it began using plain language in 2007 was skepticism and resistance, primarily from senior officers accustomed to the traditional 10-code system.

Implementation

HPS formed an implementation committee to gather input, with representation mainly from front-line members and communications personnel, as they would be impacted the most. The main objective was to put forth recommendations and suggestions. The committee's most significant recommendation was to keep ten of the 39 HPS 10-codes for officer safety and privacy reasons.

A concern with regards to brevity on the air was also raised. The committee reviewed each 10-code individually and determined that plain language uses the same amount of airtime and even less in some cases. Ear pieces were made available to all front-line members to prevent suspects overhearing transmissions.

The HPS took a simplified approach to plain language training. A short 30 minute PowerPoint was presented to all members who use radios and each was given a new modified 10-code card for their notebooks. The presentation and additional instructions were posted on the HPS in-house training database so all members could reference it at any time.

The HPS plain language initiative went 'live' on the first day of 2013. Our officers are clear and concise with their radio transmissions but more importantly, the HPS is confident in our ability to effectively communicate with our emergency partners during multi-agency events.

"Plain language for radio communications is a key component of interoperability," noted Louisiana State Police Major David Staton. "Agencies can only work together if they are all speaking the same 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."

About the Author

Treena Ley is a sergeant with the HPS Training Branch, Professional Development Division. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 905 546-4965 for more information.

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