Gurney Creek looking toward Grant Narrows on Pitt Lake

The other day I came across this article on Cop-Speak, entitled Cops Talk Funny, and I recognized something about myself; I talk SAR-speak.

Certainly not as bad as some, but it’s there. The word choice, how we refer to the people we search for as “subjects”, how we “deploy” and “stand down”. I use it here on my blog, and I use it when I write for the SAR team’s web site, Facebook and Twitter. And it’s everywhere. I’ve been to several national conferences and it seems that the SAR speak, with regional variations  is spread across the country pretty thick.

It’s natural for a group of people to begin using jargon. It’s also natural for us to use terminology in a certain way. For instance, we like to call the people we search for “subjects” and not “victims” because a victim brings the connotation of foul play, and it seems like they’re already injured or deceased; we don’t want to alarm people, and cause them to come to the wrong conclusion so we call them “subjects”. This is an example of a careful and thoughtful use of terminology.

We also use specific language to speak about avalanches, rope rescue, and medical terminology. Those uses of jargon and SAR-speak is are for a good reason as the jargon terms capture the meaning much more succinctly than a longer, plain English explanation, assuming that both the sender and the receiver understand the meaning. This is another example of a well thought out and meaningful use of jargon – to speed up and make communications easier.

However, lots of SAR-speak is… for lack of a better explanation… designed to sound cool.

It seems to me that SAR people spend a lot of time around emergency responders, and we are exposed to their terminology. I think the majority of the SAR-speak comes from being close to these professionals, and wanting to sound all cool and professional like them. It also comes from the exposure to TV shows like Cops“and the CSI fancise — an effect that has been studied and reported on by sociologists. Even emergency responders lay it on thicker than they need to, and are affected by how the media portrays them.

This doesn’t become a problem until it actually obfuscates the meaning of what you’re writing, and makes communication more difficult instead of less so.

It just sounds cooler to say “we were deployed into the terrain” than to say “SAR members walked along a trail”, and “we extracted the subject” instead of “we hiked back down the trail with the subject”. It sounds technical, dangerous, and much more important than a clearer description of the activity. Suddenly, the jargon which was so useful to make communication easier between people who understand it, is being used to make things less clear, sound more technical, and to basically muddy the waters rather than facilitate the clear transmission of information.

Nowhere does this come out more than when a SAR person is on the radio. Radio talk is already full of jargon, but in SAR it’s full of  “Code Alpha” and “Code 4” and such.

This despite specific instructions in the GSAR manual that admonishes prospective SAR members to use plain language and stay away from jargon and codes as a best practise.

I’ve personally come across multiple examples of a SAR team developing or adopting jargon within the team that made it confusing, more difficult, and plainly dangerous when communicating to SAR members from other teams who did not use such jargon.

The cop-speak issue is so prevalent that journalists write about it in an attempt to figure out what it means (and what it might be hiding), and to avoid using it in their reports. Journalists who spend a lot of time on a crime “beat” should avoid speaking cop-speak because it will percolate into their reporting, and make things less clear. Such is also the case with SAR.

Another thing to think about is that language matters. It shapes how we think about things.

When speaking about “the subject” remember that they are a person, and they have a name.

When speaking about “being deployed” also remember that SAR teams are people, and they get tired, and they are not being paid to be there.

And when speaking about how terribly dangerous and technical your SAR Task is, remember that the public will blame the people you rescue for putting you in danger — be sure to tell it like it is, that any SAR member is supposed to refuse to do anything they feel is dangerous and they are untrained for. The SAR-speak seems designed to make it feel like “being deployed” is something you can’t say no to.

Finally, when speaking to the public and the media, using clear language makes your message understandable, relate-able  and accentuates the fact that you, for the most part, are unpaid volunteers and are most definitely not

In summary

  • Know your audience; use Jargon only when the recipient is guaranteed to know it.
    Don’t assume they know, you will be putting people in danger.
  • Do not use jargon with the public or media;
    Jargon can be misunderstood, if your goal is to ensures your message is heard and understood, use plain language.
    If your goal is to sound cool and important, by all means jargon it up.
  • Remember that language changes how we think, think about your word choices.
    Remember you’re dealing with humans, not subjects and resources.
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