Joshua Hind: Bad communication costs lives. And our communication is really bad.

How can the government still be so terrible at informing the public about COVID seven months into this pandemic?

By: Joshua Hind

Seven months into the pandemic, Canadian governments are still struggling to communicate. We’d all be better off if they’d learned the lessons in clear language our friends to the south learned years ago — the hard way. 

In 2006, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was trying to settle a decades-old problem; the use of codes by first responders — the best-known example of which were the radio “10-codes” — was slowing down response times and costing lives. Created in the ’30s and ’40s, the 10-codes were intended to give police communications a measure of confidentiality in an era when two-way radio usage was becoming more and more common.

In the beginning, it was standardized, and the best-known codes, like “10-4,” were consistent from town to town or state to state. But it didn’t take long for newer codes to emerge, which often meant different things depending on where you were. Efforts to reorganize the codes every 20 years or so only compounded the problem. On a local level, in any one town, it wasn’t a problem. But when cops or firefighters from different towns had to work together it could lead to disaster.

In 1970, a particularly severe wildfire season in California killed 16 people in a 13-day period and laid bare the cost of bad interagency communication. The rat’s nest of codes, abbreviations, and jargon prevented firefighters from different towns from communicating with the speed and clarity a major disaster demands. To address the problem, the U.S. Forest Service created FIRESCOPE, the first complete system for organizing and managing major incidents. One of the primary principles of this new system was to “develop standard terminology.”

Despite this effort, which later went national and then international (the province of Ontario has its own version, the “Incident Management System”) coded language continued to proliferate. Nearly 30 years after FIRESCOPE was launched, on September 11th, incompatible technology, lack of protocols, and a refusal to harmonize terminology likely contributed to the deaths of 121 firefighters who were caught in the collapse of the North Tower because they either didn’t hear or couldn’t understand the warnings that the building was about to fail.

Which brings us back to 2006, and FEMA’s notice to first responders. After decades of asking agencies to stop using coded language, the federal government made funding contingent on compliance. “The use of plain language in emergency response is a matter of public safety,” the memo’s introduction read. “There simply is little or no room for misunderstanding in an emergency situation.” From that point forward, all interdepartmental communication would have to be un-coded. A fire would be called "fire." A shooting would be "a shooting." And if you needed help, you’d say “HELP!”

Police, fire departments and paramedics slowly but surely got on board and started using some form of the incident management system which included plain language. As use of the system spread, other sectors, like large music festivals and other live events, began adopting the concepts to better synchronize public safety programs with the first responders who support them. Today it’s not unusual for producers, technicians and event security staff to attend training at the police college right next to fire captains and police officers.

Then COVID-19 happened, and we realized that no one had told Public Health.

At a Friday press conference, in the midst of the latest explosion of new cases of COVID-19 in the city, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr, Eileen DeVilla, held a press conference in which she asked the Province of Ontario to grant a 28-day “pause” to allow the city to catch up with and hopefully contain the spread of the coronavirus. But what’s a “pause,” and how does it compare to a “rollback.” Are we in a new “phase,” or perhaps an old “stage”?

Dr. DeVilla’s political counterpart, Toronto Board of Health Chair Councillor Joe Cressy, followed up the press conference with a five-tweet thread in which he discussed the need for a “pause,” admitting that it would “hit workers and small businesses especially hard.”

But he never actually described what would be paused.

Did we still have to go to work? Should I pull my kids out of school? When challenged to describe the pause, Cllr. Cressy replied with a link to a city website. Five days later (as of writing), the pause has yet to start and it’s no clearer what it would entail if it did.

Coded language, the exact thing emergency managers have been trying to eliminate for decades, is thriving again in the federal, provincial and local responses to COVID-19. One reason for this is political. Leaders across the country are trying to avoid being accused of overpromising and under-delivering (the result of which is typically chronic under-delivery). The other reason has to do with a pervasive over-reliance on catchphrases, jargon and "bureaucratese," and a widespread belief that people can only handle messages that are short and positive. In other words, governments have been trying to fight COVID with memes and slogans.

Seven months into the pandemic I’m not sure you could find two people who have the same impression of what it means to “flatten the curve,” never mind how to go about doing it. Not only is the term confusing, it doesn’t match the curves people see every day. Most graphs show either new cases or active cases, neither of which have ever been flat. They grew quickly, fell steadily, went a bit bowl-shaped, then shot up again. Did we do it? Were we close? Does it still matter? 

We may only be “bowing the curve,” but at least we know to maintain "social distance." Or is it "physical distance"? Is there a difference? Surely though, we'll flatten the curve if we stay in our “bubbles.”

It’s hard to pick a standout in such a wide field of communications failures, but “bubbles” might take the prize. It’s tempting to choose the messaging around masks, which in April “instilled a false sense of security” but in September were an “effective public health practice,” but at least you could understand the basic premise. Masks were bad, now they’re good. You might not know why things changed, but it’s easy enough to accept that they did.

Bubbles are another matter entirely. Bubbles require math.

People in your house are in your bubble, and someone from outside your house can be in your bubble but not anyone else’s bubble. And to be frank, that may be entirely wrong. In the rush to create a system that would permit people to socialize, public-health officials created a scheme that allowed people to honestly think they were doing the right thing when they weren’t, and worse, gave cover for people to do the wrong thing and blame it on bad messaging. And then, unforgivably, governments reused the term “bubble” to refer to groups of kids in schools, a new interpretation which bore no resemblance to the original use.

Through all of this, leaders of all stripes have stubbornly avoided talking to us as though we’re adults. When asked about what precautions Ontarians should take during the Thanksgiving weekend, the premier of Ontario and the minister of health gave long, vague replies before Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, concluded with a warning about undercooked turkeys.

Tragedy becomes farce becomes a tragedy, and so on.

This coming weekend will be another major test. For those of us who are being careful, we need to know what we should and should not do. Are we meeting the public-health requirement, or do we only think we're meeting it? The answers to those critical questions will be the difference between life and death, and you can't answer them with carefully chosen, politically appealing buzzwords. Governments must start telling us exactly what we need to do, even if it’s hard or unpopular. 

One of the reasons police and fire stubbornly refused to give up 10 codes is because they earnestly thought that if someone heard a firefighter yell “FIRE!” over the radio it could cause panic, as though the smoke and flames wouldn’t cause panic all on their own. Our leaders appear to be taking a similar approach, thinking that if they wrap their guidance in slogans and jargon that the public will be more inclined to think things are under control and will continue working, shopping and generally keeping the economy from exploding. 

But we see the smoke and flame, we know there’s a fire, and governments have a duty to clearly tell us which way to run.

A 23-year veteran of the live entertainment industry, Joshua Hind is a planner and designer for major live events in Toronto. He is also the original designer of the world-famous TORONTO sign, and a creator of three award-winning shows and four theatres with Cirque du Soleil. He has completed training in Incident Management from the City of Toronto, Province of Ontario and the Toronto Police Service. Follow Joshua on Twitter at @joshuahind. 

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