A double-edged sword
Ten-codes have been used by police departments and other first responders for decades as an over-the-air verbal shorthand, but the need to effectively communicate during multi-jurisdictional events ultimately may lead to the demise of the ubiquitous “10-4” as a way to quickly say “message acknowledged.” Public-safety officials and training organizations are working out how 10-codes will ultimately leave the airwaves, to be replaced by plain speech. However, some agencies are digging in their heels.
“Ten-codes versus plain language has been something that’s been an issue between fire and police for years,” said Phil East, vice president of EMAC International, a consulting company working with the Department of Homeland Security that has trained more than 35,000 first responders over the last year.
“A lot of police agencies are stuck on 10-codes for operational security,” East said. “[But] because of mutual-aid agreements and differences in the codes they used, most fire service agencies have done away with 10-codes already. When you start looking at integration with multiple agencies into disaster response, it’s a nightmare.”
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) first published 10-codes in 1996. Over the years, major law enforcement and emergency response agencies started using 10-codes and adapting the system to their own preferences. Some agencies decided to create 11-codes for their own needs while others have chosen to use plain speech communication.
“What this has created is a lack of one common language for all public-safety agencies,” said Courtney McCarron, APCO’s communications affairs manager. “It is so problematic that a code in one agency could mean something completely different in another agency.”
Communication problems aren’t hypothetical; they arose time after time in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as dozens of federal, state and local agencies tried to work together, but didn’t speak a common radio tongue. “They had tons of problems down in New Orleans,” said Bill Carter, director of wireless systems for Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Using plain language should offer a big benefit for first responders. “Being able to talk on the radio like you talk on the phone, that’s an advantage,” Carter said. “It is helpful in everyday response, but especially useful when multiple agencies or agencies from multiple jurisdictions are responding to an incident. They will be able to clearly speak to each other, increasing operational interoperability and response coordination.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working to insure that first responders use plain speech for multi-jurisdiction and multi-agency events, a position endorsed by APCO in a February position statement. DHS has incorporated the use of plain talk for radio communication into the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the practice already is being incorporated in exercises.
“In tabletop training in our REACT (response and command training) simulator, we require [first responders] to use plain talk, so they follow the NIMS standard,” EMAC’s East said. But he noted that public-safety officials don’t use 10-codes when they’re working with audiences of different groups “because they’ll need a translator.” East, a fire captain in Virginia, said that his department had eliminated the use of 10-codes so they wouldn’t fall back into the habit of using them during an emergency.
Transitioning police and other 10-code users into using plain language should be relatively affordable, but making sure that people don’t revert to old practices or stick to their current procedures could be a challenge.
“The reality is, [plain talk] is going to have to be a daily commitment,” said Kevin Willett, instructional coordinator at Public Safety Training Consultants, a company that has been training first responders for 10 years. “The retraining itself is going to take four to eight hours and be like any other one-day class, less than $100 a person. The remediation is a daily chore, just like anything else. This is something new, [like] going from a revolver to a Glock [pistol] — it will take some getting used to.”
Willett said some agencies aren’t happy with the DHS mandates. “We’re seeing more agencies that are digging in their heels. Law enforcement is absolutely stuck on codes. They’re not willing to make the jump for retraining,” he said. “I don’t think that DHS gave a compelling reason for using plain talk every day. I think the mandate just came down, and it rubbed administrators the wrong way.”
He estimated that more than 85% of law enforcement agencies are dedicated to 10-code practices, while only perhaps 10% are either changing — or at least looking at the benefits of changing — to plain language.
However, law enforcement officials already working in a multi-jurisdictional environment recognize the benefits of moving to plain language sooner rather than later.
“In many cases, the 10-codes mean different things in different places,” said Lou Cannon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police’s Washington, D.C., chapter, who leads an organization representing 32 local and federal police organizations. “In D.C., 10-99 is the acknowledgement of a one-man unit. In Maryland, it’s something else. If you’re involved in a chase [across state lines], it’s almost as if [dispatchers] need a translator. If you relay a message in 10-code, you could be saying the wrong thing. If you say it in plain English, they’ll pretty much understand it.”
Although he believes 10-codes have their uses, he sees no need for the hundred-plus in service today. “I think you’ll have a certain amount of 10-codes that will be universal, maybe reduced to ten, that are common around the nation.”
He thinks it would be a simple process to transition to a simpler code system and plain talk, but someone needs to “take the bull by the horns” to start the process and monitor it to completion.
Trainers are concerned about potential inconsistencies in terms of how plain-talk language is defined. “Plain language uses plain language,” East said. “Organizations have to get out of using specific jargon.”
Willett expressed similar concerns, citing a lack of guidance from DHS and the need to train dispatchers — an aspect that largely has been ignored so far — as well as first responders. “If we pick up a bunch of Seattle firefighters and go down to Katrina to help out, will their plain talk be the same as Louisiana’s? I haven’t heard of any standards for plain talk.”
Chicago’s Carter doesn’t think plain-talk standardization is necessary. “It can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but even if it varies, it is going to be said plainly enough to be understood by anyone. That’s the point, to make it understandable by anyone,” Carter said. “The military doesn’t use any 10-codes, do they? No. Plain talk is plain talk. They may use secret codes to validate things, and otherwise there are the abbreviations they use for their daily operations. But it’s clear what they mean when they call for a fire mission.”
SAMPLE 10-CODE USAGE
|APCO code||Plain language meaning||Washington, D.C. Police||Maryland State Police||New York City Police|
|10-4||Message received/understood||Message received, understood||Message received, understood||Message received, understood|
|10-7||Out of service||Out of service]||Out of service||Verify address|
|10-13||Advise weather/road condition||Advise weather/road condition||Advise weather/road condition||Assist police officer|
|10-33||Emergency/officer needs help||Officer needs assistance||Emergency||In progress, explosive device/threat|
|10-50||Not assigned by APCO||Motor vehicle accident||Accident||Disorderly person/group or noise|
|10-96||Not assigned by APCO||Not assigned||Mental patient||Summons served|
|10-99||Not assigned by APCO||Acknowledgement (1 officer unit)||Wanted/stolen indicated||Incident resolved|
|Sources: Bearcat Radio Club & Hobby Radio Stop Home Page, RadioReference.com, Wikipedia|