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Coordinating Communications: The Value of Plain Speech and Universal Radio Equipment in Local Operations

Author: Samuel Knisley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-01-30
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During a critical incident, it is common for multiple emergency resources to be dispatched.  For example, during a flood, volunteer fire departments, local law enforcement, and even local security companies are a few key players in response efforts.  Mutual aid in terms of interdepartmental cooperation in the event of a critical incident involving multiple jurisdictions is paramount in supporting the public safety interests of the community.  Coordination of efforts requires failsafe leadership and communication. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has restructured their response procedures after the arguable failures during hurricane Katrina.  It seems reasonable that if such an established federal agency as FEMA recognizes its fallibility and concedes to restructure in attempt to strengthen its capabilities, so too should each emergency service provider within the United States.

It is a requirement for many emergency agencies including police and fire rescue to complete much of the National Incident Management System training (NIMS).  This training program is a free comprehensive course that describes, in great detail, the response organization and command structure associated with a critical incident such as Katrina.  Within its outline, a small portion of the course material suggests the use of plain speech radio communication instead of common ten-codes or department related jargon.  It is in recognition of the importance of plain speech departmental transition and in universal radio communication between agencies that this article is written.

NIMS requires the use of plain speech during multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction and multi-discipline events, such as major disasters and exercises.  It does not require plain speech as common practice within day to day departmental operations.  However, the importance of plain speech as a means of creating a universal radio language in the United States goes far beyond those kind of major, multi-agency disasters. 

In 2010, for example, a prisoner undergoing a medical treatment at the University of North Carolina Hospital escaped from two Correctional Officers, evaded the hospital police on foot, stole a UNC Campus Police squad car, led a high speed chase with Chapel Hill Police Department and finally was apprehended by North Carolina State Highway Patrol in another county.  This incident, though critical to local standards, did not require the initiation of NIMS.  Radio communication, however, proved an obstacle to law enforcement personnel that may have been overcome with greater ease should plain speech protocol been established universally within the state.

During this incident, there were a minimum of five law enforcement agencies involved.  The chase extended from Orange County, through Durham County, and finally into Alamance County.  Unfortunately, Orange County Dispatch uses plain speech radio communication, Durham County Dispatch uses one list of ten code radio communication, and Alamance County Dispatch uses an entirely different type of ten code communications.  It seems overwhelming to also consider the radio communication practices of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections, the UNC Campus Police Department, and various smaller municipal police departments throughout the route of the chase.

There seems to be a need for uniformity of the communication techniques throughout law enforcement.  The Department of Homeland Security addresses this concern in a publication made available on their website entitled Plain Language Guide – Making the Transition from Ten Codes to Plain Language. This publication emphasizes that plain speech radio communication must be phased into the common practices within the departments of emergency service providers.  Without removing complicated numeric language such as ten codes from radio communication entirely, confusion is likely to result during the stress of a critical incident. It appears, however, that plain speech communication, though useful, must be used in conjunction with universal radio equipment.

Incompatibility of radio communication equipment utilized by responders added to the confusion of the North Carolina chase.  The particular radio systems used by various departments is kept confidential for security reasons, but an audio transcript from the Chapel Hill Police Department was released by WRAL News.  After review of the transcript, it is clear that there was a lack of direct communication between officers hailing from different agencies.  Commanding officers from Chapel Hill Police Department ordered their dispatch office to inform over five agencies of the pursuit.  Said agencies were previously unaware of the pursuit entering their jurisdiction.  Radio communication discussed deploying the pit maneuver, a technique by which a police vehicle makes physical contact with the suspect vehicle forcing the suspect vehicle to lose control, thus ending the pursuit.  The decision was made not to execute the pit maneuver because Campus Police Department was involved in the pursuit and wasn’t aware of the plans to execute such a dangerous technique.

North Carolina Law allows for a police officer to extend authority beyond normal territorial jurisdiction so long as the officer is in continuous and immediate pursuit of a suspect.   This means that any officer who is engaged in a pursuit legally can continue his or her involvement of the pursuit until its conclusion while in the state of North Carolina.  In the event of a vehicle pursuit extending through multiple jurisdictions, it is common for police vehicles involved to accumulate as more jurisdictions are crossed.  In today’s media-conscious society, images of a single suspect vehicle paraded by twenty or thirty police vehicles are common during this type of pursuit.  For this reason, the UNC Campus Police Department continued to chase the suspect even when Chapel Hill Police Department entered the Pursuit.  As multiple police departments become involved in a pursuit, it seems apparent that there is an inflated risk of harm if said departments are not in direct communication with one another.

Towards the end of the chase, the lead officer transmitted that: “… I got a Tahoe involved in [the pursuit], perhaps HP [Highway Patrol]… it’s an unmarked, I’m trying to figure it out…”In attempt to coordinate efforts, the Chapel Hill supervisor in charge of the pursuit requested the dispatch office to “… see if HP [Highway Patrol] can talk by CB Radio…”

This confusion was no doubt a result of inadequate communication between responding agencies.  Should there have been some protocol for direct communication between multiple agencies involved in this incident, there would have been less confusion likely resulting in a more efficient deployment of law enforcement coordination.

One may take the plain speech technique and universal equipment further to advocate use not only within his or her own department, but also unify neighboring departments so as to provide smooth communication during interdepartmental mutual aid.  The NIMS program suggests that agencies identify all of the resources within their jurisdiction such as construction companies with heavy equipment, private security, loss prevention…etc. These resources may be utilized in aid of a critical incident.  Some of these resources such as the aforementioned construction and security companies may also use radio communication to conduct business.  It is advised that, in efforts to provide uniformity in radio communication, these organizational resources are cross-trained accordingly.

The Crabtree Valley Special Police Department in Raleigh, North Carolina provides private security agencies within their jurisdiction access to radio equipment capable of transmitting and receiving radio traffic on the police department’s bandwidth.  This allows security personnel such as loss prevention agents to inform police patrol units directly in the event of a larceny that requires a fast response.  The Crabtree Valley Special Police Department also provides training to the security personnel on their radio communication protocol so that communication is effective.  This practice has drastically increased the efficiency of suspect capture due to proactive police deployment.

The likelihood of a disaster in proportion to one requiring activation of the National Incident Management System within your jurisdiction may be minimal.  However, local critical incidents that require interdepartmental mutual aid such as the prisoner escape from the UNC Campus Hospital are more likely to occur.   Therefore, it stands to reason that communication is prerequisite to command, and must be mastered through operational protocols, training, and compatible radio equipment in order to accomplish the mission of emergency service.


Samuel Knisley has been involved in law enforcement for eight years.  Originally a Fugitive Recovery Agent in Virginia, his career includes service on patrol for the North Carolina Central University Campus Police Department, Service as an Investigations Officer under the North Carolina Special Police Commission with the NC Attorney General’s Office, volunteer service as a reserve Sheriff’s Deputy for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and Volunteer fire Service for the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department.  He currently studies criminal justice at Campbell University.




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