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Flashpoint: March 2014

I would bet that most of you have been in a conversation in which people in a work environment used industry jargon and didn’t realize that the customer, client, or other party was not familiar with the language.

February 26, 2014  By Peter Sells

I would bet that most of you have been in a conversation in which people in a work environment used industry jargon and didn’t realize that the customer, client, or other party was not familiar with the language. It’s frustrating, maybe sometimes comically so, when you are ordering lunch or trying to buy a new technomajigger and don’t understand the jargon the salesperson is using. So imagine that you are in an upper-floor suite in a highrise building, knowing that a unit somewhere below you is on fire, and you are being told by firefighters or building security to shelter in place.

On Jan. 5, two men were overcome by smoke, one fatally, while trying to evacuate from their 31st floor condo unit in New York. FDNY officials have described the fatality as totally preventable if the men had received simple instructions and stayed in their unit.

According to Shayne Mintz, the Canadian regional director of the NFPA, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, an independent non-profit that plans, manages and communicates research in support of the NFPA mission, plans to amend NFPA 72: the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, to bring in best practices for emergency messaging.

“In the event of an emergency requiring communications between emergency responders, or security personnel, and the occupants of a highrise building or other large assembly area, the voice instructions provided need to be clear, concise and understandable.”


So, with regard to terminology such as shelter in place, having such text in the fire safety plan is fine, as long as the messaging to occupants is conveyed in simple, common language.

“Well-crafted, simple and straightforward messages will encourage positive and organized responses by the occupants,” Mintz said in an interview. “The intent of using clear text for in-building communications is to reduce confusion, particularly where multiple agencies are operating at the same incident.”

Jason Reid, president of the National Life Safety Group, an Ontario-based firm providing workplace and infrastructure emergency management and business continuity consultation, agrees.

“The lack of standardized language crisis communications for use on building PA systems in fire-response situations negatively impacts private-sector first responders such as security personnel or building superintendents, and the life safety of building occupants.”

Incident commanders should also make sure that messages going out through commercial media channels are consistent with the messages being communicated on scene. This was a problem at a six-alarm highrise fire in Toronto in 2010. Residents above the fire floor were being told by personnel on scene to stay in their units, use wet towels to fill any gaps under entry doors, continue to monitor the media, and to phone 911 if they were in distress. Despite this, one well-meaning local television anchor was giving different instructions on the supper-hour newscast.

“The [journalist] was advising all occupants to evacuate, contrary to our messaging and despite the fact that we had stairwells which were contaminated with smoke,” said Bill Stewart, who was Toronto’s fire chief at the time.

“Once we became aware of the situation, we brought that channel’s messages into alignment with ours. . . This could have caused us some serious problems in terms of the safety of the occupants and, ultimately, the safety of our firefighters as well.”

It is useful to compare the use of plain language in messaging to building occupants to the process firefighters are recommended to use in radio communications. NFPA 1561: Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety recommends that 10-codes, or agency-specific codes, not be used when using clear text/plain language.

For example firefighters will often answer a question in the affirmative by saying “10-4” or “Roger.” Both of those codes correspond to “Message received and understood”, not to “yes.” The vernacular use of 10-4 and Roger has mistakenly altered their meaning into an affirmative response and is precisely the type of ambiguity that radio codes were supposed to prevent.

As the annex to NFPA 1561 notes, “The intent of the use of . . . language for radio communications is to reduce confusion at incidents, particularly where different agencies work together.”

When communicating with building occupants, we need to put that same intent into practice, so we don’t end up evacuating in place. I’m still trying to figure out that one.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo

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