Feds working to end use of 10-codes

By John Scheibe
Ventura County Star

If federal Homeland Security officials have their way, the next time a police officer arrives on scene, he'll simply radio back "I'm here" rather than saying "10-97."

Police have long used "10-codes" to communicate with each other and dispatchers. The codes were developed in the 1930s, when radio channels were scarce. They allowed police to succinctly relay information through a four-digit number rather than clog the airwaves with wordy descriptions.

But problems developed over time. For starters, there is no universal code. To one agency, a "10-50" might mean "officer down," while to another it stands for a routine traffic stop.

The problem became especially evident during big emergencies, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., where police and fire agencies from across the nation rushed to help.

"When they got there, many of them were unable to communicate with each other effectively," said Chris Essid, director of the Office of Emergency Communications for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Many agencies faced the same problem four years later when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Essid said.

Federal officials now require that officers use "plain language" when responding to a crisis involving multiple agencies.

"Very often, it doesn't take anymore time to just say it in English," Essid said.

Federal officials are also urging departments to replace their jumble of codes with "plain language" in their day-to-day operations.

Essid and others point to a 2005 incident in Missouri in which a local police officer radioed late one night to his dispatcher that he had just seen a state highway patrol officer's car with a door open stopped along a highway. The officer said he was going to go back to make sure the patrolman was OK.

It turns out the Missouri Highway Patrol officer was lying in a ditch, barely alive, having been shot eight times with a rifle. The local police dispatcher decided to use plain English in sending out a call for help.

Had she said "10-33," her department's code for "officer down," it would have meant something very different to the Missouri Highway Patrol: "traffic backup." Instead, every state trooper within miles responded, and the officer lived.

In many cases, "being able to communicate quickly and effectively can mean the difference between life and death," Essid said.

Technology also has come a long way since the 1930s, Essid said, noting police and others now have many more ways to communicate, such as computers in patrol cars.

But getting agencies to change a communication system that's been in place nearly 80 years in many places is another matter. "Culture change is never easy," he said.

John Miller, a sergeant with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, said deputies would often get in trouble if they used plain language in the field when he went to work for the department 25 years ago.

"The dispatchers would get mad because you were talking too much and taking up too much radio time," Miller said.

Now, more and more agencies are working together, Miller said, whether it's on a big wildfire or other large operation.

"There's a big advantage to using plain talk in that everyone knows what everyone else is talking about," said Miller, who has helped train recruits for the department.

Recruits continue to learn the 10-code, Miller said, but deputies are encouraged to use everyday language when possible.

In some situations, using plain language is not a good idea, he said. An officer, for example, might not want a relative to hear something horrific right away at the scene, such as the death of a loved one. An officer might also want to speak in code when they've encountered a dangerous suspect, he said.

"You don't want to tip someone off and endanger your own life or that of someone else."

Sgt. Jack Richards, a spokesman for the Ventura Police Department, believes there will always be a need for police code.

"There are times when it's just more efficient to transmit something in code rather than in plain language," Richards said.

But like Miller, Richards believes it's important to give officers the choice to use either. "It all depends on the situation," Richards said.

Copyright 2009 Ventura County Star

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