Goodbye to Ten-Four

FEMA Promotes Plain-Language Radio Response

First responders:
toward a common language

IN the weeks leading up to Katrina, the U.S. Federal Government took steps to standardize the language and rules of emergency response. Until now, local and state officials have been using local '10-codes" in radio communications.

In Virginia, a "10-50" in police-speak means "a motor vehicle accident." But in adjoining Maryland, "10-50" becomes "officer in trouble." There are no standard 10-codes. They change from agency to agency, state to state, and function to function. The police often use different 10-codes from the fire department, which often uses different codes from Emergency Medical Services.

In March 2004, the Department of Homeland Security set up the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the first-ever standardized approach to incident management and response. It establishes a uniform set of processes and procedures that emergency responders at all levels of government will use to conduct response operations.

In May of this year, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) issued a directive with an array of new procedures. It calls for phasing out the 10-codes—or "brevity codes"—and replacing them with phrases like "I'm at an accident scene" and other standard language.

August FEMA Warnings

In August, FEMA officials issued two cautionary bulletins to local and state response agencies around the country.

The August 17 bulletin stated: "The point is that all responders at all levels use the same organizational structures, terminology, procedures and systems all the time...The idea is to achieve interoperability among jurisdictions and disciplines." The August 23 bulletin stressed 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.

"It comes down to common terminology, plain language, plain English that everyone can understand," said Don Jacks, FEMA spokesman. "It's the language that we use. If there's a bank robbery, we want the police to say, 'There's a bank robbery at First and Main' instead of, 'There's a 10-50'." FEMA hopes this will create a system by which all police and emergency personnel can understand each other and reduce confusion in emergency situations involving multiple jurisdictions.

Funding Tied to Compliance

While some police jurisdictions would like to continue using the 10-codes for everyday use, FEMA is insisting that the plain-language instructions be used for both everyday use as well as national emergencies and is tying funding to compliance. The bulletin 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.

FEMA addressed those concerns by saying that the new regulations must be used in the day-to-operations to be effective. "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."

The first bulletin 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. 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."

From the Associated Press and other news services

On-the-Job Training

Writing Across the Workplace

Zinsser: Real-world learning

MANAGERS world-wide have come to recognize the need to give workers the skills they need to do their job. A survey in Britain recently found that 74% of the public believe that companies should be fined for not offering training. New York State is currently considering a law requiring all businesses to offer training. Surveys have consistently shown that investment in on-the-job training pays off well in profits and worker satisfaction.

Managers are also beginning to see the connection between writing skills and achieving company goals. Good writers bring greater profits and customer satisfaction by being better sources of creativity and knowledge.

According to educator William Zinsser in Writing to Learn, writing improves the ability to think, to discover what one knows and how to express it. Zinsser points to a trend in American schools and colleges called "writing across the curriculum." He says writing is no longer the sole responsibility of the English teacher but is an organic part of how every subject is taught. Writing is a way of thinking, whatever the subject.

It also makes writing more appealing by enabling people to write about subjects that are familiar to them and that they are good at. Many writing classes do a great disservice by removing writing from real-life experiences.

Zinsser stresses that we cannot leave writing skills up to the schools or English teachers.

Writing is a skill that is "basic to everyone's life," he writes. "That should be everybody's job. That's citizenship."

Zinsser claims that schools often fail to relate learning to the life of the students:

Inevitably, much of the writing that English teachers assign is based on literature—on what somebody else has written— and therefore has little reality. And what students in turn write for the English teacher is more florid than what they would write for anybody else. They reach for a "literary" style that they think the teacher wants and that they assume is "good English." But this style is no part of who they are. Nor is it necessarily good English; much of what academics write is fuzzy and verbose. Students should be learning a strong and unpretentious prose that will carry their thoughts about the world they live in.
Another powerful element in learning to write is motivation. Motivation is crucial to writing—students will write far more willingly if they write about subjects that interest them and that they have an aptitude for. But they don't often get that chance; writing tends to be assigned only in subjects like English or history that are identified with writing.

The Benefits of Functional Literacy

The same lesson is true in the workplace. Instruction related to real-world tasks gets results.

Experiments in the U.S. military showed the cost effectiveness of on-the-job training. They were able to bring recruits—previously considered to be of "low aptitude"—from the 4th to the 8th-grade reading skill in nine weeks. That training led to long and successful careers in the military for many of them, completion of their education, and increases in pay, rank, and benefits. It brought them not only a job but a lifetime career in service to their country. (See Cast-Off Youth, Sticht et al, Praeger, 1987.)

How did the military accomplish in nine weeks what the schools often fail to do in 12 years? By having them read and write about the experiences and demands they faced in the military. The benefits of this "functional" (or "practical") approach to literacy continued to improve their life long after leaving the military.

Practice Makes Perfect

On-the-job learning that focuses on job tasks produces the same benefits. A recent study by the University of York confirmed that what works is "in-practice exercises or activities that were well integrated with expression, were working in context and had a strong purpose for writing." Instructions remote from practice had less effect than those embedded in practice.

Professor Richard Andrews, who headed the study said that, when it comes to learning how to write, "There is a hands-on, tactile, physical dimension to learn something new. You can only learn those social, practical problem-solving skills in practice, when you are in the process of tyring to improve or learn."

Communities of Practice

Experts also point out the social nature of learning in the workplace. Writing excellence is not the result of an individual's skill but of a variety of skills shared by workers responding to the demands of their environment.

In Issue #11 of this newsletter, we wrote of the central role of professional writers and editors in shaping and directing the communication skills of an organization. Learning to write well is hard work and can take years. It means writing a lot, and having one's efforts corrected again and again by a good editor.

It is also true that we learn writing by imitating the writing of others. Those who were excellent writers in school often become poor writers in the workplace because of poor standards around them. In writing as in other tasks, we do what is expected of us. An important function of managers and editors is to set the standards by providing clear models for others to follow.

It is important that all workers take responsibility for the readability and clarity of their writing. Helping them achieve that responsibility is a key step in reaching today's business goals.

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Hosted by:
U.S. Plain Language Action and Information Network
and the Center for Plain Language

New California Jury Instructions

THE Judicial Council of California on 26 August 2005 officially adopted new criminal jury instructions that emphasize plain English, eliminating confusing legalese that has been used in trials for the past 70 years.

The new instructions go into effect in January. Eight years ago, Chief Justice Ronald M. George appointed a 29-member task force to research and write instructions that were accurate and easy to understand. The task force comprised judges, lawyers, law professors and other professionals, whose draft of the instructions was reviewed by hundreds of legal professionals throughout the state.

Two years ago, the Judicial Council adopted plain English jury instructions for civil trials. Only a few states have simplified jury instructions.

In a related action, the Judicial Council voted to make the instructions widely available to the public. The instructions will be available at no cost on the California Courts Web site at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/jury/civiljuryinstructions/index.htm

LexisNexis is developing an interactive software program that will allow judges and attorneys to customize the new instructions to fit the facts of each case.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, International Consultant on Adult Literacy

Plain Language in the News

Web sites for seniors:

Content of Web pages:

Ireland's new plain-English accountancy rules:

Multilingual workforces:

Government pays for on-the-job training:

Networks mangle the language:

The myth of high-falutin copy:

New Spanish security-investor Web site: