Police 10-codes dying language

Radio communication by police and emergency workers has traditionally been done through a number coded system, known as 10-codes. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

An almost 70-year-old unique American language will be laid to rest as law enforcement works to homogenize communications in an age of disaster preparedness. Earlier this month, under federal mandate, local agencies began moving from 10-code radio transmissions to “plain talk.”

Radio communication by police and emergency workers has traditionally been done through a number coded system, known as 10-codes. For example, “10-4” is widely recognized as an affirmative answer.

To make two-way radio messages more efficient and standardized, 10-codes were developed in 1937 and refined in 1974. They have even become part of pop culture, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.

Over the years, agencies, organizations and communities have adapted the codes and developed variations, according to Wikipedia, with some areas using different codes than others.

Ken De Los Santos, Local Emergency Planning Committee chairman, said the city of Clovis passed a resolution last month to comply with the National Incident Management System, a system designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to streamline operations of different agencies during disasters. One of the rules under system is for agencies to use plain talk in radio communication.

The idea, he said, is to make sure first responders are able to understand one another no matter where they are or where they come from in the country.

Federal grant funding for state and local agencies, he said, can depend on local compliance. Communities nationwide are expected to be in full compliance by the end of September.

Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher said he is displeased with the switch, but his department is already making the changes. Hatcher said he believes plain talk is going to clutter the airwaves and overcomplicate communication.

The change will affect efficiency and potentially place officers at risk, he said.

“The smart thing would have been to come up with a nationally recognized code,” he said. “In the long run, they’re going to find out that (plain talk) is not any better than using 10-codes — they are still going to have conflicts.”

Hatcher expressed frustration, saying major decisions are made on a federal level without consulting law enforcement, and agencies that don’t assimilate can lose vital funding.

“The federal government should not be holding the states hostage to get us to do what they want,” Hatcher said.

Clovis Police Lt. Jim Schoeffel said Clovis police officers have been changing to plain talk for the last couple weeks. Breaking away from 10-codes has been an adjustment, but is starting to become routine, he said.

Overall, Schoeffel said, the change is simply a matter of rewiring old habits, although he shared some of Hatcher’s concerns.

“(Plain talk) draws out our transmissions and that could be a safety issue in the field,” he said, explaining an officer previously could say “10-24” to indicate distress and was widely understood. Under plain talk, an officer in distress will have to try to explain his situation, potentially losing valuable time.

Radio codes are widely available to the public and therefore radio secrecy is not really a concern in the plain talk issue, according to Schoeffel. The decision to scramble CPD radio communications was made in advance of the 10-code announcement, he said.

The transition to plain talk is not optional, Schoeffel said, citing the same concerns for federal grant money.

“When the federal government tells you you need to do something and it could affect your grants and money, it’s a battle you can’t win. We rely on that money,” he said.