What Are Emergency Radio Codes?

What Are Emergency Radio Codes?

Emergency radio codes are brevity codes that are used to represent common phrases used by law enforcement officers and emergency response agencies. These codes were invented to reduce the need for normal speech at the time when radio channels were still time-restricted.

Additionally, the use of these codes also protects the confidentiality of transmissions.

The most commonly used emergency radio codes are called the 10-Codes. This coded language was first used by law enforcement agencies to reduce radio traffic and significantly add a layer of privacy to their messages.

Since its development in 1937, these set of codes had been used not just by law enforcement officers and emergency response agencies, but also CB radio enthusiasts. They were first published in 1940 by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

There are a number of different codes, some of which are practiced across different agencies, while others apply to specific areas or communication forms. Because there is no standard coded language, using these codes might result to confusion and miscommunication.

Which, in turn, would contravene its true purpose of providing a common communication means for various agencies.

For the past several years, there has been an ongoing debate about the functionality of emergency radio codes. The U.S. federal government, back in 2006, even recommended discontinuing the practice of using these codes because of the lack of standardization across all agencies.

On Lack of Standardization

If a once reliable system loses its reliability, it is only acceptable to have it changed or totally phased out. Over the years and across different agencies, emergency radio codes had evolved and along with it the phrases they represent. Obviously, this causes problems when there is a need for inter-agency communications.

The lack of standardization among emergency radio codes used by different agencies is the reason why the U.S. federal government recommended to go back to using plain language. You can only expect different agencies to work successfully together when they are all speaking the same language.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) also strongly encourages the use of plain language in its internal operations. They believe that the use of plain language is the key component to have a successful inter-agency operation as it will not result to any miscommunications.

This communication challenge during inter-agency operations gave rise to the implementation of the use of plain language to avoid confusion. However, there have also been arguments for and against the use of 10-codes and plain language in various agencies.

Emergency Radio Codes vs. Plain Language

The absence of the layer of privacy that coded language provides caused law enforcement and emergency response agencies to worry about a number of things. Among these problems are the safety of law enforcement officers and the protection of sensitive information. The public’s perception of professionalism of agencies might also suffer.

Officer Safety

For several decades, officers of the law have been protected by the added privacy that using 10-codes offers. With coded language, sensitive information about law enforcement operations is not easily understood by the general public.

Today, however, a simple internet search provides anything you need to know about emergency radio codes. So, the argument that it provides officer safety is invalid.

Instead of using coded language, the advanced technology that we have today can resolve the issue of officer safety. A number of encryption methods can be utilized to replace the use of coded language.

Transmission of Sensitive Information

Broadcasting sensitive information over the radio poses a lot of problems. This is one of the strongest reasons why coded language was developed.

But, because almost everyone has access to these codes and what they stand for, there really isn’t any additional privacy when using 10-codes.

To address the issue, some agencies developed a mix of coded terms and plain language so as not to disclose any sensitive information to the general public. However, plain language is still encouraged whenever there is an inter-agency operation.

Public’s Perception of Professionalism

Another issue that may arise from the use of plain language over coded language is that plain language sounds unprofessional. But, this is mainly because the general public is used to hearing officers use coded language.

Emergency radio codes were developed to convey brief and concise messages. Yet, the fact that various set of codes have been developed by different agencies resulted to even more confusion and miscommunication.

Because of this reason, the government now implores law enforcement agencies and emergency responders to use plain language.

Another reason for this big change also arose from the reality that coded language is now easily available to not just law enforcement agencies and emergency responders but anyone who wants to learn it, which makes coded language to be seen as useless.

Additionally, these issues and concerns can be easily resolved and addressed if the transition from coded language to plain language is done correctly.


At the time when radio transmissions were time-limited, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) developed a solution—coded language. Commonly known as 10-codes, these brevity codes were used by law enforcement officers and emergency responders to reduce the time they convey information through the radio.

These codes also added a layer of privacy to sensitive information that is broadcasted on police radio channels.

However, over time, various agencies developed their own emergency radio codes causing confusion and miscommunication when there is a need for inter-agency operations. This is the reason why plain language is now being encouraged to be used again.

But, like all major changes, it was not readily welcomed by everybody. A number of arguments against this big change sprung up, some of which include the safety of the officers and the transmission of sensitive information.

In response to these problems, the government assures law enforcement agencies and emergency responders that the advancement in the encryption capabilities that we have today can solve the issues in officer safety and the protection of sensitive information.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Reply: