'10-4' is out; emergency workers encouraged to use plain talk

By David Hench
Portland Press Herald
Copyright 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

An effort to discourage police and other emergency workers from using the cryptic radio shorthand called ''10-codes'' could lead to 10-73 (trouble at station) - if the idea isn't 10-7 (out of service) at the outset.

Police - and, to an extent, firefighters and other emergency workers - have relied on the 10-codes for generations as a way to cut down the time spent talking on the radio. Now federal emergency officials want to improve communication among different agencies during a major catastrophe, and the Department of Homeland Security says abandoning the 10-codes will help.

There's even the specter of cutting federal grant money for departments that don't comply.

However, changing such a intrinsic part of inter-officer radio communication won't be easy. For some emergency workers, a car accident with injuries just is a 10-55 PI. More important, they say, benefits of the system are too valuable to give up.

''If you're standing next to a guy and the radio says (he) might have a gun, he might know the jig is up,'' which could endanger officers and the public, said Officer David Argitis, a rookie patrolman in Portland who said he is still trying to learn the 10-codes so they are second nature to him.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, federal emergency management officials began pushing for uniform ways of responding to major disasters so that any number of agencies responding would agree on a chain of command and a shared system of interacting. The goals were reinforced by Hurricane Katrina, which drew emergency workers from across the country, though the system was initially developed by firefighters working across agencies to fight forest fires.

The Department of Homeland Security now requires communities to which the department gives funds to adopt the National Incident Command System, which calls for public safety responders to communicate in plain English.

The rationale is simple. Radio code and abbreviations can be quite different from agency to agency.

For years, when a Portland fire engine arrived at the scene of a fire, the crew would announce over the radio they were ''10-32,'' or on-scene.

A police officer listening to the radio traffic could become understandably alarmed. A 10-32 for police is a person with a weapon, often a gun.

''That can literally put a lot of people in danger, if I think one thing and somebody thinks something else,'' said Portland Deputy Fire Chief Terry Walsh, adding that his department has been phasing out use of 10-codes for the last five or six years.

Joe Gimmig, communications systems manager with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said the state agency has encouraged its county directors to forgo use of the codes, but he doesn't expect a forced mandate for local agencies.

''It might be kind of a marginal thing, with the use of plain language 'strongly encouraged,' '' Gimmig said. ''I certainly don't think somebody is going to be monitoring their radio traffic to see if they're using 10-codes.''

Even if a department's policy calls for plain language, for many officers the 10-codes are ingrained, which is part of the problem, Gimmig says.

''If your day-to-day procedure is different from the emergency procedure, it's likely to become the emergency procedure'' in a disaster, he said. When federal, state, county and multiple local agencies have to work together, that can be a problem, he said.

Day to day, the codes can simplify communication within an agency.

''The art of it is brevity,'' Portland Capt. Ted Ross said. ''How can you get as much information out in a short period of time that is accurate and understandable?'' During the day, more than 30 police workers are relying on the radios to communicate, so expediency counts.

It's easier, apparently, to say a group of 10-94s having a 10-16 are getting ready to 10-54 (juveniles having a loud party are preparing to drag race).

Portland police have no plans to do away with 10-codes, Ross said, and he believes that in a multi-agency disaster response, officers could easily shift to plain language.

''If I'm talking to a firefighter at a vehicle accident, we're not going to utilize a 10-code. We'll talk to them in plain English,'' he said.

Liz Tilley, supervisor at the Penobscot County dispatch center, said she encourages her dispatchers to use plain English to avoid confusion when communicating with the roughly 75 agencies they cover where codes can mean different things. The 10-code for a county deputy coming on duty is the same as the state police code for a dog problem, she said. The county code for going off duty means a prowler to a state trooper.

''There are certain 10-codes, like 10-4, dispatchers will never get away from,'' she said. ''If an officer is in distress, if things are going downhill in a hurry, it makes more sense to say 'I need backup in such and such a location' rather than ... I don't even know what the 10-code is any more.''

Technology is helping. Computers in cruisers have cut down on the need for some radio communication, and cell phones can be used when privacy is important.

Cumberland County Capt. Bill Rhoads believes eventually doing away with the codes is a good idea and not that difficult a process.

''All we would have to do is start at the beginning,'' he said, referring to the new recruits coming out of the academy. ''The hardest guys are going to be the old guys like me.''

Will a growing number of agencies choose to abandon the codes? 10-23 (stand by).

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