Decoding the Professional Language of Emergency Management

Decoding the Professional Language of Emergency Management

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A week ago my team organised an event which walked participants through an extreme heat scenario. It had taken around 6 months of planning and become known to us as Exercise Helios.

At the very start of the process a new colleague with little previous experience of the UK emergency management structures asked a very sensible question…

“why do we give scenario events like this names?”

I had to admit that I wasn’t really sure. I suspect that it has to do with the origins of the profession having military and uniformed service roots, but I can’t say with certainty that there aren’t other reasons.

Despite their initial opposition to a name, over time my colleague started to called it ‘Exercise Helios’. In the final weeks before the event, I started to notice senior staff in the organisation enquiring about ‘Operation Helios’, a term which was reflected in the media coverage. Those two aspects got me thinking about the theme for this post – the terms that we use, how we use them, and how other people might interpret that – the role of professional language. In reflecting on the language of emergency management I also wonder whether language might actually be the purest essence of resilience?

Side note: please can somebody commission a semantic review of the civil protection lexcion?!

What’s in a name?

As in other fields, the landscape of emergency management is a thicket of technical terminology. We’re as guilty as the next field in developing our own professional language and applying it inconsistently.

The world of emergency management is full of terminology that serves that purpose. In a UK context for instance, there are various terms which refer to a multi agency meeting; it could be a Strategic Coordinating Group, a Recovery Coordinating Group, a Mass Fatality Coordination Group or many other things. In this case, the use of jargon which might not be explicitly understood outside a fairly narrow profession is helpful. It clearly expresses what is being referred to and avoids the misunderstanding of a more vague description.

In those cases, training is really important because it socialises and reinforces the meaning that those terms have, and ensures a shared approach and understanding. Many years ago I completed a MIMMS course and over the course of 3 days had used and explained ‘METHANE‘ so many times that it was almost unconscious.

Clear and effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful emergency response. In a 2013 review of persistent lessons identified from emergencies, Dr Kevin Pollock found that of 32 events reviewed, ineffective communications was a key contributing factor in the common causes of failure.

Precision is important and the ability to convey critical information clearly and concisely to multiple stakeholders is paramount. Yet the ever increasing labyrinth of jargon, acronyms and terminology can bamboozle, and that’s before considering other types of communication.

A colleague recently shared an article about a recent military exercise, which is liberal in it’s use of abbreviations. I’m not suggesting that everything has to be written for a general public audience, nor that you can’t make some assumptions about what your audience knows. But one sentence in the article reads ‘As SMEs in CQB, K Coy was invited to act as the assaulting force for the serials’ which requires a reasonably high level of domain knowledge to parse.

Ever evolving language of Emergency Management

Where both parties understand each other, professional language serves as a shortcut, but what about where there isn’t an agreed understanding of a term?

Who is a victim? Where is a community? Who are stakeholders? What does it mean to have recovered? These are hotly debated matters with many intersecting interpretations. How we understand language varies based on geography, the cultural norms and our own experiences.

General understanding of the term ‘casualty’ might be a person who has sustained an injury. But in the maritime sector a vessel in distress can also be known as a casualty. Knowing that is really important to avoid searching for a missing person who is actually a boat!

Things become more challenging for new entrants to the field, or where we are trying to work with other sectors who don’t have the same shared language. It can be alienating in both directions to listen to people saying things you don’t understand.

There is a possibility that the use of jargon, unexplained acronyms and convoluted speech is some kind of power play. I don’t think most people intentionally set out to make things hard to understand, but we have to be aware of the possibility of power dynamics.

I wrote recently that ‘emergency planning is dead‘. Perhaps one of the reasons that we need to think differently about emergency management is that how we speak about emergency management has got us to this point. To engage wider we need to adjust the language we use to make it more inclusive, accessible and relatable. It’s partly why I’m not a huge fan of grab bag initiatives, the language of which seems tone deaf to the pressures many people face on a daily basis.

We should also check and confirm understanding. I’ve been on internal courses which espouse the importance of active listening. The trainer will tell you that ‘nodding indicates that you are engaged and attentive’. But to the person doing the communicating, that nod signals agreement or comprehension to the speaker. I remember one occasion in a meeting with an eloquent Government colleague who kept referring to people as ‘recalcitrant’. I nodded along in absolute agreement but googling the definition on my phone under the table! (Recalcitrant: having an obstinately uncooperative attitude towards authority, which incidentally has turned out to be one of my favourite words!).

The best advice that I have been given relating to this this came from a member of a community group. They challenged me after a meeting and said “just be real”. It’s feedback which I took to heart and have tried to reflect on since, making my own communication style more accessible and trying to cut through some of the opacity that language can create.

Language: the purest form of resilience

Language provides access to information, employment, and education. Language builds cohesion and increases access to social and economic resources. Language helps individuals and communities understand and help each other. And language helps us tell stories and share experiences.

Those are all aspects of ‘resilience’ and in the course of writing this I feel like I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon something I hadn’t realised before; that language might be the purest form of resilience.

Your favourite jargon?

I invite you to share your favourite emergency management term? A phrase that in any other context would be hard to understand correctly, or perhaps just one that entertains you.

In itself, the professional language of emergency management isn’t good or bad. It has it’s uses and limitations. We shouldn’t remove jargon, but we should think just as critically about how we communicate as what we communicate.


The image at the top of this post is taken from ‘Words Are All We Have’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who’s works often referenced the resilience and defiance of individuals.

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