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The End of 10-Codes?

What rookie police officer hasn’t savored the first time he hefted a radio microphone and got to say, “Dispatch, did you get my 10-20? 10-4.” It’s almost a rite of passage, like flicking on the siren for the first time or making your first arrest. Well, the days of 10-codes, Signal-codes and Code-speak may well be numbered if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has its way.

As part of its National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) protocol, DHS is pushing hard for first responders to replace 10-codes with “plain English” radio communications. For instance, rather than asking dispatchers if they got your 10-20, DHS wants you to say, “Did you get my location?”

But why would DHS want to put 10-codes 10-7; i.e., out of service? The reason is simple, said Tom Chirhart, a program manager with DHS’ SAFECOM program. “Even though [the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials] developed a standardized set of 10-codes in the 1940s and updated them in the 1970s, the truth is that there is no standard set that everyone uses. “That’s why DHS wants first responders to communicate in plain English during multi-agency situations, to ensure that everyone understands each other.”

Fatal Accident or Coffee Break?

Tom Chirhart speaks the truth when he says that the 10-codes used by various departments are so different at times, they’re confusing. For example, 10-54 may mean a fatal car accident has occurred. However, with other agencies, 10-54 can mean “dead animal,” “fueling vehicle,” “coffee break,” or “all units within range report.”

To clarify how confusing this diversity could be, imagine that I was at a gas station fueling my patrol car, when I witnessed a fatal traffic accident between a car and cow that killed the driver and the animal. Since I was alone while on my coffee break, my local department’s policy dictates that I call for backup. So I grab my radio mic, and bark out, “10-54, 10-54, 10-54, 10-54, 10-54!”

As absurd as the above example is, it does illustrate how much confusion today’s non-standard 10-codes can cause, especially between agencies operating on their own particular sets of definitions. “When I was in law enforcement in Minnesota, a 10-54 was a fatal traffic accident,” said SAFECOM’s Chirhart. “But for other agencies, a 10-54 can be anything from livestock on the highway to a damaged traffic signal.” Then there’s 10-69, which according to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia variously means ‘message received,’ ‘any calls for me?’ or ‘sniper!’”

Origin of 10-Codes

The great irony of 10-codes is that they were not originally conceived as a means of confusing people. Instead, they were a form of verbal shorthand meant to allow officers to send messages using the briefest of language, at a time when radio channels were limited.

“In the early two-way radio systems in the 1930s and 1940s, it was typical for an entire department to be operating on a single police radio channel,” Chirhart explained. “In these circumstances, it made good sense to use codes such as 10-4, since it communicated the officer’s meaning clearly yet quickly.”

Besides the scarcity of police bandwidth, the influx of WWII military veterans, telegraph and teletype operators, and amateur radio operators led to many departments adopting time-saving codes. 10-codes weren’t the only form used either; “Q-codes” were also used. These were three letter signals used by Morse, teletype, and amateur radio operators to save time on-air. For instance, saying “QRT” into your mic means that you are “going quiet” (shutting down), while “what’s your QTH’ means “what’s your location (or 10-20)?”

Changing Times

As first responder radio technology advanced, police departments found themselves operating on several radio bands, rather than crowding into one. They also spent more time communicating with fire, police, and other police departments via radio, at least in those situations where their radio equipment was able to operate together. Finally, the push into signal trunking and digital radio technology vastly broadened the effective bandwidth available to police departments. Yet even today, “the vast majority are still using 10-codes,” Chirhart said. Why is this the case? In many instances, it’s just a matter of tradition. All the officers on the force have been trained to use 10-codes—whichever particular set their department ascribes to—and thus they see no reason to stop using them. In fact, they’re comfortable with 10-codes and leery of losing them; just as people always are when it comes to giving up the familiar for something new and unknown.

Next comes the clarity that 10-codes can impart to departmental communications—something that may not happen when people speak in plain English. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a stock list of nationally-accepted, plain English phrases to replace 10-codes with.

Then, there’s the implicit security that speaking in code gives people; despite the fact that eavesdropping reporters, scanner fans, and even criminals know how to find out what their local departments’ 10-codes mean.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that using 10-codes sounds cool. Let’s not discount the importance of “cool” to law enforcement; it’s part of the allure of the job!

Make Way for Plain English

All these considerations cannot change the fact that DHS wants first responders to drop 10-codes, especially in situations where multiple agencies are responding to the same scene.

This desire makes sense. Interoperability is as much about people being able to understand what one another is talking about, as it is about ensuring that their radios can communicate with each other.

Still, despite the fact that DHS is pushing plain English through NIMS does not mean departments that stick to 10-codes will lose federal funding, as has been suggested in other publications.

For the record, the DHS’s NIMS position on 10-codes, is outlined in the NIMS FAQ on its Web site.

Here is the question: “Our 911 center, which receives and dispatches all emergency and non-emergency calls, has told us that we may not use 10-codes at all. I gather we must use plain language when using NIMS ICS [Incident Command System]. Is that correct?” The NIMS FAQ answer is: “ICS requires the use of common terminology; that is, the use of plain English...That said, it is the intention of the NIMS Integration Center to take a practical common sense approach to this, and not cut off funding to a city because we hear of first responder who happens use 10-codes.”

Despite this reassurance from DHS, it is clear that the time to replace 10-codes with plain English has arrived. They no longer have a place in today’s first-responder environment, where multiple agencies have to be able to work together at a moment’s notice and in unprecedented combinations, as was the case during Sept. 11 in Manhattan.

Granted, it is possible to keep using 10-codes within a given department, but it’s not advisable. When officers find themselves in a mutual aid crisis, they’re not going to consciously suspend using 10-codes in the heat of battle. For the sake of them and the other first responders with whom they work, such officers must be accustomed to plain English communications and make its usage second nature. Sadly, soon the only appropriate place for 10-codes will be on CB radios and old reruns of “Highway Patrol.”

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at

Photos courtesy of Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

Rating : 9.5

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