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Program would get emergency responders on the same page

"We're 10-15 with the suspect in the code-7 vehicle," the scanner squawks. Say what?

If you're up on your law-enforcement lingo, you know police have just nabbed a suspected car thief.

But "Adam-12" talk on emergency scanners is declining as plain speaking is being strongly encouraged by the federal government — and embraced by several local public safety agencies.

Police, fire and other emergency responders across the nation have been receiving training in the new federal requirements for the National Incident Management System, said Mike Curry, Jackson County's emergency program manager. Part of that training includes dropping numerical codes from their radio jargon in favor of a uniform dialect known as "clear speech" or "clear text," he said.

"We're getting everybody on the same page and speaking the same language," said Curry. "They don't want codes or acronyms."

The code system was created to save time when radio channels were scarce.

But codes vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even from town to town. For example, Jackson County dispatchers are telling an officer that a suspect is armed and dangerous if they announce "10-40" over the scanner. However, an Oregon State Police trooper, hearing "12-40" from his dispatch, is simply being informed to stand by, officials say.

The numerical hodgepodge can cause confusion and life-threatening misunderstandings, particularly when multiple agencies are attempting to work together, says Central Point Police Chief Jon Zeliff. From the Columbine High School shooting to the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina, there are ample examples of why it is important for emergency responders to communicate accurately and efficiently, Zeliff said.

"When things go sideways, everyone needs to be speaking the same language," said Zeliff. "Interconnectivity is vital."

Southern Oregon Regional Communications, the county's emergency dispatch service representing 36 local agencies, has been utilizing clear text since December 2005, said Margie Puckett, SORC director. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was urging the change, and SORC agencies agreed it was time to unify their dispatch language, Puckett said.

"You don't want someone in trouble yelling out a code and someone at the other end not knowing what they're asking for," said Puckett.

Before the change, SORC, municipal police and Oregon State Police were using three different code systems, Puckett said.

Threats by FEMA to cut the purse strings of agencies who resisted the change to clear text caused an uproar from police agencies throughout the nation, Curry said. At this point, the federal government is using a "carrot and a stick" approach to the clear text issue, he said.

"Each state is being audited for NIMS compliance," said Curry.

Failing the audit can mean paying back Homeland Security grant money. Jackson County has received several million dollars in Homeland Security grants, Curry said.

Zeliff said he remembers the national outcry from police agencies upset with FEMA's clear speech demands. Humans are creatures of habit, and police officers are no exception, Zeliff said.

"Sometimes tradition will completely impede progress," said Zeliff.

But law enforcement and public safety agencies must continue to evolve, Zeliff said.

"You can't get it done if you don't get it started," he said.

Calls requesting comment to Oregon State Police and Jackson County Sheriff's Department were not returned.

Former Medford Police Chief Ray Shipley pushed his department to adopt clear text almost 20 years ago, said Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George.

"Many of us, including myself, resisted that change at first. But it was the best thing we ever did," said George. "You can have the best radio system, but if you're talking two different languages, you're shooting yourself in the foot."

Firefighters and emergency medical responders dropped codes in the early 1990s, said Rod Edwards, a District 3 battalion chief. Task forces and strike teams protecting homes in multiple fire districts needed a common language, he said.

"It has certainly been our experience that it has made life easier for everybody," said Edwards.

Zeliff said his department dropped codes years ago and his organization is fully NIMS-compliant. It also recently received 13 new radios, priced at $3,500 each, from a Jackson County Homeland Security grant, Zeliff said.

"I believe there should be something that compels co-responders to get in compliance," said Zeliff. "I would support some form of accountability."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Central Point police Officer Willie Mott makes a call on his radio Tuesday afternoon. The department is among a growing number of public safety agencies that have dropped the use of codes in emergency communications.