Police shift to plain language

Posted Dec. 30, 2009, at 8:37 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — As of Jan. 1, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department no longer will use the ten code, a system of talking with numbers that many law enforcement agencies use when conversing with each other and communications centers.

Ten codes, also known as ten signals, were developed in 1937 and expanded in 1974 by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International to allow for brevity and standardization of message traffic. They historically have been used by law enforcement officers in North America, although in 2005, the U.S. federal government recommended they be discontinued in favor of everyday language.

Over time, the meanings of the codes have become different for different agencies. For example, if a Washington County deputy got into an accident with his cruiser today, he would report to the communications center that he was 10-50.

But in Virginia, a 10-50 means an officer needs assistance. In Maryland, it means a traffic accident with injuries. In New York, 10-50 means a disorderly person.

A 10-79 call, depending on where it is made, can mean anything from a bomb threat to a missing bicycle.

Sheriff Donnie Smith said that eventually all law enforcement agencies will revert to plain language.

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said that although no policy has been set involving plain language, his department continues to move away from ten codes. The problem lies with meshing multiple agencies, he said Wednesday.

“The ambulance may use one code, the Sheriff’s Department another and the state police a different version,” Gastia said. “It’s gotten to the point that we need to just say what we mean. We haven’t fully switched over but we are doing plain language a lot more than ever before.”

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said there are no plans for his agency to drop the ten code. “We all speak the same language [with ten code],” he said. “It’s in place and it works.”

He said that if multijurisdictional agencies came to the county, deputies easily could be directed to use plain language.

Maine State Police has been slowly reverting to plain language for nearly a year, Cliff Wells, director of communications, said.

“It is not policy yet because it is a difficult thing to eliminate. We are so used to the code, but even with numbers, we have to be careful. There can be doubt even with numbers. If there is any question on the part of the operators, they can just ask the question again.”

Mike Smith is director of communications for Somerset County, which is slowly working plain language into its system.

“I find dispatch using common language more and more as we slowly work toward 100 percent plain language,” he said. “It is difficult because everyone is so accustomed to using [the ten code].

Washington County Sheriff Smith said the old ten code system was developed more than 75 years ago and was an attempt to make things simpler by using a series of numbers to indicate what the officer’s business was. It was also an attempt to be a bit secretive.

“It fools no one,” Smith said. “Everyone that listens to their scanner knows the code.”

In April 1999, when a school massacre took place at Columbine High School in Colorado, responding police agencies discovered they couldn’t communicate with each other, Smith said. Not only were they using different radio frequencies, but they were using different ten codes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the dozens of responding agencies were told to revert to plain language to avoid misunderstanding emergency calls.

“Here in Washington County, if we had any type of international incident, it would be mass confusion,” he said.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, Smith said there has been a national process to bring all agencies into compliance with the Department of Homeland Security and National Incident Management System. This means no more 10-48 (an unattended death), or 10-57 (ambulance), or 10-33 (police chase).

“In each case, the deputies will clearly state what the incident, call or activity is,” Smith said. “Instead of saying ‘I’m 10-8,’ they will say they are in service.”

“It’s going to be a hard transition,” Smith acknowledged. “It will take some time getting used to.”

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