By Lilia Yumagulova
In this new series, we address key issues for diversity and inclusion in emergency management.
Diversity and inclusion are increasingly recognized as key ingredients to fostering a sense of belonging. We do better when we feel that we belong. One study has shown that a high sense of belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. To increase a sense of belonging in our field, we can start with small steps towards diversity and inclusion as individuals, organizations, and a broader professional culture. In this article, I focus on the evolution of terminology and the overuse of acronyms, particularly in relation to inclusiveness and diversity in the field of emergency management.
Keep up with evolving terminology
Our evolving understanding of the world is reflected in the language we use. For example, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (the Framework) moved away from using the inaccurate term ‘natural disaster’. Decades of research has shown that disasters are socially constructed and that societies make choices that will directly impact whether a hazard becomes a disaster.
The Framework was also the first global DRR framework to refer to Indigenous Peoples as key ‘stakeholders’. In a field that relies on relationships, the word ‘stakeholder’ is commonly used to describe key partners in emergency management. This term has deep colonial connotations. As described by the Government of British Columbia (Terminology in Indigenous content), “When land acquisition was happening, this term referred to the allotment of land to settlers. Settlers were given wooden stakes to claim their plot of land prior to any treaty or land negotiations with Indigenous Peoples.” When speaking about Indigenous Peoples as partners in emergency management, a more accurate and respectful term would be Rights and Title holders, rather than stakeholders, clearly acknowledging Indigenous rights and title.
This growing awareness of the importance of language is also reflected in how emergency services are framed. For example, Emergency Social Services is a program designed to provide for short-term needs of evacuees in an emergency. In British Columbia, a subtle, but significant change in program title happened by renaming Emergency Social Services to Emergency Support Services. This was done in response to feedback from First Nations who felt very uncomfortable with ‘social services’, a term referring to actions and concepts that have brought harm to communities through colonially-administered programs. Unfortunately, when we use the ESS acronym for this program, this nuance is lost.
Terminology used in many government programs needs revision. For example, Tarina Colledge, Métis and holistic emergency and disaster manager, pointed out that the word ‘assistance’ in the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements and provincial programs such as Disaster Financial Assistance set a false expectation among the public that “there is financial help rather than partial reimbursement for out-of-pocket restorative expenses. More than a year after the atmospheric river events of 2021 in B.C., citizens are still commenting in the media about how they have not yet received their funding from the province to repair the damages they experienced.” Tarina suggests that focus groups could inform needed terminology changes with the goal of increasing the precision of language for high level key programs. She calls it a “namey-ology process”, which seems to hit the mark no matter the audience as opposed to ‘nomenclature’, which can be a difficult word to understand.
Avoiding a MIC. KEY. MOU. SE. operations centre: Unravel the acronyms
AHRA. AHIMT. FLNRORD. PEMSAP. Abbreviations are a mark of most specialized fields and in the high-paced field of emergency management, shortcuts are often used for memorability and speed. As shared by Genevieve Fox, “Three letter acronyms (TLAs 🙂 ) and the like aren’t used intentionally to harm or confuse…rather they are trade lexicon that aids with brevity and streamlining in often time sensitive environments (military, paramilitary, responder, and emergency management fields).”
Abbreviations that reduce inclusivity may have been intended to support efficiency, based on assumptions that we all process things similarly in terms of language comprehension and hearing ability, which is often not the case. Unfortunately, overuse of acronyms can result in a lack of clarity and alienation, especially for newcomers to a field, people with hearing disabilities, or for people whose first language is not the language primarily in use. Healthcare acronyms, legal acronyms, and people in the industry “just making up their own” acronyms add complexity. As Helen Miller noted, “Clarity and interoperability are the goals. Often that is forgotten.”
In addition to overuse of acronyms by professionals, provincial ministries are often changing their names and acronyms. “It is not a ‘given’ that everyone outside of government (or in government for that matter) will know about the changes and shifts,” Cher King noted. MoF, FKA FNLRORD, IYKWIM.
The use of acronyms is especially challenging in a multilingual context with over 60 Indigenous languages, English, French, and many global languages spoken in Canada. Nicole Spence commented, “Acronyms do not translate well, thus reducing accessibility.” Paul-Émile Auger, Spécialiste en Gestion des Urgences/Emergency Management Specialist, further added: “The paradox is that many ICS-trained people use insider acronyms, where we should use a plain, common vocabulary. Also, often EM terms are not translated consistently in French. We can sometimes see ‘gestion des urgences’ or ‘gestion d’urgences’ or ‘gestion de situations d’urgences’ or ‘gestion des mesures d’urgence’. It should be ‘gestion des urgences’ in the majority of cases, in my opinion. Also, many inconsistent translations exist in the various flavors of ICS. I think it stems from the fact that many training programs or certifications just don’t exist in French, creating a gap.”
Several community members have shared tips for increasing inclusivity and communicating clearly:
- Provide a commonly-used list of acronyms for folks new to a setting. Have a discussion with partner agencies and organizations about the terminology they use. As Mēsha Richard shared: “There’s nothing worse than zooming in on a meeting and hearing external teams drop terms you aren’t familiar with in an assumption that everyone must already know them. This is what ICS/IMS was meant to address, but as we know this can only take things so far.”
- When new players are present, articulate and explain acronyms in addition to, or in lieu of, provision of a reference list. As Genevieve Fox noted, “Inclusive communications in such cases and situations only benefit all.”
- Develop a “Plain Language and Common Terminology in Incident Command System (ICS)” reference document; an approach taken by Dean Monterey and a colleague. “We find students don’t always understand the difference… Let alone acronyms. I once knew a person that could complete entire sentences in acronyms. I ask students to unravel the acronyms, MIC. KEY. MOU. SE.”
- Have a no acronyms policy. “It’s very hard. I even think in acronyms,” Jeff Warren noted. “When teaching EM classes, I hand out a list of common acronyms to each student to cover for the inevitable acronym habit.”
- Use infographics and images. As Shannon Peterson, Senior Project Manager, Integrated Partnership for Regional Emergency Management (IPREM) shared: “Accessibility! Using icons or pictures including infographics are a great way to convey information without a lot of text, making it easier for newcomers, neurodiverse, and the general public to understand and digest information.”
There is a difference between using acronyms in written communication for an insider audience versus communicating verbally with members of the public (or long-suffering family members). “If you are not on the inside, you are on the outside,” noted one partner of an emergency manager.
Ultimately, the overuse of acronyms by service providers especially isolates people who are experiencing a disaster. Christine Taylor, a bilingual emergency management professional, reminds us that, “The goal should be that everyone understands what we are saying and asking of them. Whether we are in the emergency operation centre, in a meeting with colleagues, asking for funding, explaining the situation to residents, or providing situation updates to decision makers which may impact residents.”
We can increase inclusivity and diversity in emergency management and the feeling of belonging by being open to evolving terminology, decoding the acronyms, and using plain language. Whether you are a professional or a student or a resident, “always speak up to ask for clarification. Chances are, you aren’t the only person in the room who doesn’t know the term, misheard it, or misinterpreted it”, suggested Mēsha Richard.
Acknowledgements and Thanks
I would like to acknowledge the many people who generously contributed suggestions and comments for this article including Jeff Warren, Tarina Colledge, Mēsha Richard, Paul-Émile Auger, Nicole Spence, Helen Miller, Dean Monterey, Cher King, Genevieve Fox, Vanessa Howard, Christine Taylor, Shannon Peterson, Shawn Vanier, Maddy Laberge, Erica Woolf, and others.
I would like to thank Cindy Marven and Mēsha Richard for their excellent edits of this article which helped with clarity and accessibility. There is so much to be learned in this field!
Next in the series: Privilege in emergency management; Self-care in emergency management
Several community members stressed that to increase inclusivity, there is a need to acknowledge privilege and destigmatize self-care within emergency management as a profession. We will take a deeper look at these two issues in our next articles. Do you have tips or a story that you would like to share about privilege and self-care in emergency management as an individual, an organization, or a field of practice? Please email us at email@example.com with a subject line “Diversity and inclusion”.
FLNRORD = Ministry of Forests, Land, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development
AHIMT = All-Hazard Incident Management Team
IYKWIM = If you know what I mean.
FKA = formerly known as.
PEMSAP = Ontario’s Provincial Emergency Management Strategic Action Plan
Lilia Yumagulova is the Editor for HazNet.