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Chicomm Blog

Are Ten Codes a Thing of the Past for Public Safety?

Posted by Lisa MacGillivray on Monday, August 7, 2017

ST-police-3dTen codes, also known as 10 codes, are an important and enduring element of radio lingo, much like the main phonetic alphabetpolice phonetic alphabet, and other radio-specific terms. Thanks to popular culture, even people who don’t use two-way radios are familiar with codes such as “10-4,” meaning “affirmative." (If you've ever visited our offices, you've likely heard these terms in use, particularly if you overheard a conversation with Shop Supervisor Emory Ludtke

Despite their pervasiveness in multiple industries and law enforcement, codes and other lingo are fading among certain radio users, leading some to wonder: Are ten codes a thing of the past for public safety? Let's take a look whether that's true, and why or why not.

Origin of 10 Codes

The invention of ten codes, also known as 10 codes, is attributed to Charles "Charlie" Hopper, who was communications director for the Illinois State Police in the 1930s. Back then, radio communication was fairly new, and the beginning of each message transmitted via radio could be cut off or inaudible.

Hopper came up with the codes to make up for the delay and ensure that full, concise messages were heard. By changing the last number in the code, operators could assign it to a particular message and still have the critical aspect of the code heard.

Popular Codes

Like other radio lingo with multiple versions, such as the police phonetic alphabet, military phonetic alphabet and international phonetic alphabet, there are variations in ten codes depending on the context and location, which is one reason they’re being phased out by some jurisdictions.

A set of codes has been standardized by the Association of Police Communications Officers-International (APCO), and here are some of the most common:  

  • 10-9: Say again, or repeat, please
  • 10-20: Advise to Location
  • 10-69: Message received

Plain Talk

Despite their usefulness and long history, we've seen 10 codes slowly migrate to what is called the “Plain Talk” initiative. One of the main concerns with the codes is the inconsistency in what these codes stand for across jurisdictions and locations.

With modern-day interoperability between counties, districts, and even states, knowing what everyone responding to a situation is saying is vital to decoding a message. For example, the code “10-1” can range in meaning from poor reception, to officer needs help, to paging all units. See why communication needs to be more universal when interoperability is at play?

Many states have adapted the Plain Talk initiative, which rids communications systems of any codes. Say an officer uses a code to call in details about a driver they’ve pulled over for speeding. Using 10 codes, the call might sound something like, “Dispatch, Officer 11-22, 10-20 First and Main, 10-38, 10-49 Illinois ABC-123.”

By switching from code to plain talk, the call would instead be, “Dispatch, Officer 11-22, location is at the intersection of First and Main streets, pulled over vehicle for speeding with an Illinois license of ABC-123.”

Plain Talk vs. Privacy

When saying these two different forms of the same message, it seems that the code version would be faster and, given the situation, save valuable time when needed. But imagine how confusing the situation would be for an officer from a different jurisdiction where the codes have different meanings. 

With the advancement of technology like interoperability, there also comes other technological advances – and resulting privacy concerns – that have to be taken into question. A common citizen like you or me can easily access a police radio scanner or frequency scanner and listen to police radio codes and what is happening around us. There are even apps for listening to police frequencies.

At what point does this plain talk push the envelope of privacy issues? If everything communicated via radios can be easily understood by someone not in the public safety sector, can we protect the patrons that may be the subject of these messages?

Whether you come from a public safety background or from the private sector, we'd like to know your thoughts on use of plain talk vs. ten codes over the police scanner. Feel free to comment!

To get a free estimate on the best public safety communications solution for your department or agency, click here.


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