Sunday, December 11, 2011

Toward a Common Langauge

I recently was part of a conversation that included the following. "The Kabul focal point really needs to make sure the hibernation plan is updated for the satellite office if AOG activities increase more in the south. Then there's BGAN. We've got HF now and that helps, but if BGAN goes down what are we going to do?"

Depending on your experience and training, the above may make perfect sense or be as clear as mud. As with most professions, the humanitarian safety and security community has come up with its own lingo. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, until it starts to pose problems.

In the past I've posted about the Incident Command System (ICS). This is a management framework that's used by government agencies to deal with wildland fires, disasters, oil spills, terrorist incidents, large gatherings, and other complex events. The origin of ICS can be traced back to a series of catastrophic fires that struck Southern California in 1970. A large number of firefighters died and a project called FIRESCOPE was established to determine the reasons for the fatalities and how to prevent more in the future. Investigators found that the lack of a common language was one several factors that contributed to the deaths. People were using terminology that not everyone understood for issuing orders and describing situations. This, coupled with the human nature of not wanting to appear ignorant by asking for clarification, was putting firefighters, law enforcement, and civilians further in harm's way. One of the project's recommendations was to establish common terms that all responders would understand. This became one of the cornerstones of ICS.

The humanitarian safety and security community could benefit by doing the same. Some initial work can be found in a 2010 paper written by Anna Dick titled "Creating Common NGO Security Terminology: A Comparative Study" (available here). As part of her research Dick took a variety of common humanitarian security terms and compared how 32 organizations defined them; as you might expect, there were differences. She then came up with a proposed set of definitions that could be adopted across the humanitarian space.

This paper is an excellent starting point for further conversation. In addition to being invaluable during a crisis, common terminology provides for more consistent and accurate incident reporting and increased efficiency in day-to-day operations through reduced misunderstandings. It would be nice if InterAction, ECHO, or some other body drove a common terminology initiative forward. (This actually may be more sooner than later, considering the International Organization for Standardization's recent work on ISO 31000, which provides standards for how organizations should manage risk.)

Don't wait for someone else though, this is something you can be doing right now. Come up with a common security lexicon that works for your organization (based on Dick's paper or not). Then get people to start using it. Clear communication pays for itself time after time.



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