English as a first language
My favorite television program is NCIS, an acronym that stands for Naval Criminal Investigation Service. Two of the investigators are techno geeks who possess impressive degrees from even more impressive institutions. Their combination of intellect and ability to process information at warp speed makes them a cross between Albert Einstein and Jason Bourne.
As if otherworldly intelligence weren’t annoying enough, the two investigators both tend to speak in techno geek — a habit that drives their boss, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, up a wall. The typically stern Gibbs constantly reminds them to relay their discoveries to him in terms the erstwhile Navy gunnery sergeant can grasp. Failure to do so elicits one of Gibb’s withering glares or, in some cases, a smack to the back of the head. This is because Gibbs — no dummy in the realm of criminal investigation — struggles when trying to use the technological marvel that is his cell phone.
Apparently, the tendency to speak in techno geek is not a problem unique to criminal investigators. In this issue, as reported by Mary Rose Roberts (see On the Line: Beyond swamped), Lindsey Plummer — deputy chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue — advises those responsible for public-safety communications systems to speak in layman’s terms when they interact with officials from other governmental agencies, so as to be better understood. Though Plummer didn’t articulate it, it’s probably safe to presume that the need for plain language increases the higher one climbs the ladder, and especially so when one is dealing with the person(s) responsible for authorizing a particular project.
That seems intuitive. Much of the time, simpler indeed is better. It’s the primary reason why a move is afoot to replace 10 codes with plain language. After all, what good is interoperable communications at a major incident if no one can understand anyone else, because everyone is trying to communicate using their agency’s unique codes?
Last month, Juliette Kayyem, assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intergovernmental Programs, offered similar advice to the roughly 400 attendees of the National Conference on Emergency Communications, which was conducted in Chicago by the DHS Office of Emergency Communications. Kayyem reminded attendees that, while they might not see themselves as politicians, they need the support and authorization of policy-makers for the communications projects they are contemplating. She advised, “Talk to them in English.”
It’s advice that would bring a smile to the face of Agent Gibbs.