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911 Operators and Dispatchers, 10 Codes or plain language and radio traffic

Updated on January 3, 2016

A Little History

Charles "Charlie" Hopper, Communications Director for the Illinois State Police invented the use of 10 Codes in 1937. There intent was to reduce the use of airtime over the radios.

10 Codes or Plain Language

Does your agency use 10- Codes of Plain Language

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10 Codes Cause Problems

With large scale incidents, when more than one department responds, codes can become problematic. Specifically after September 11th and again after Katrina, multiple agencies responded and the use of codes became confusing.

An officer from one agency went running to what he thought was another officer needing help, because an officer from another agency was reporting traffic congestion.

But is plain language really that easy? Even though it may be just as easy to say, "I'm on scene," typing 10-97 into the call frees the dispatcher to continue other tasks, such as looking to see if the subject they are out with is wanted, or 10-04.

10 Codes allow for brevity over the radio, keeping it short and sweet. No one wants to hear a dispatch or another officer rambling on when they need to get on the air with urgent traffic.

Maryland State Police uses Plain Language



"You Cut Out"

Radios in the 1930s were based on vacuum tubes, powered by a small motor-generator called a dynamotor. The dynamotor took from 1/10 to 1/4 of a second to "spin up" to full power.

"Uh, Charlie 10, you cut out," many a dispatcher has advised when someone does not come through either at the beginning or the end of a radio transmission.

So this was the reason Charlie Hopper put the 10 before the code.

"10-04 Good Buddy"

10-04 is the most widely recognized of the 10 Codes. Made popular in the late 1950s, largely due to the television series Highway Patrol, with Broderick Crawford. Broderick would pull the radio to his mouth and utter, "10-04."

Although some 10 Codes are commonly used across many agencies, The actual Codes vary by agency and some agencies change their codes regularly.

Highway Patrol

Plain Language

Codes are used for a variety of reasons, one of the most important being officer safety.

Dispatchers have codes they use simply to ask an officer if they are free to receive sensitive information. This way the officer can walk away from someone who shouldn't overhear. Or state (in code) they can't receive the information at this time.

Plain Language:

Dispatcher, "Officer Smith, can the person you are with hear your radio? "

Officer. "Uh, yeah. Just give me a minute, I'll move away."

Dispatcher: "The person you're with is wanted for murder."

Officer, "Oh, uh, gee thanks, maybe you should send me another unit."

Dispatch to a Fire

10 Codes

10 Codes:

Dispatcher: "Charlie 301 are you 10-22?" (Within ear shot?)

Officer: "10-43" (stand by) (Officer moves away from the subject) "Go ahead"

Dispatcher: "Charlie 301 your 10-22 (person you're with) is Code 9 Alpha (wanted for felony) for Signal 9 (murder). I have another unit 10-51 (on the way.)"


Not only do the media use scanners, but the criminals do as well.

I was on a ride-a-long with an officer, in a not very good area of town, when he saw a group of people walking down the side of the road and started to slow down.

Without taking his eyes off him, my officer said, "I think that guy is wanted"

No sooner did my officer say this, and the subject bolted - running down a side alley. My officer, just as quickly rams the gear shift into park and runs after him. I sat there, abandoned in the passenger seat, with the driver side door wide open, watching him disappear.

The group of people the subject had been walking with started walking into the middle of the street near the police cruiser. I looked back at the rifle hanging behind my head and wondered if I'd know how to use it. Still unsure of what to do, I opened my door and got out. I stood between the car and the door, craning my head in a bad attempt to look like I still had my officer in my line of sight.

A tall male walked closer to me.

"54 local" he drawled in a taunting voice. "Fiiiiiiffffteeeeee Four Looooocal" he sang again, gazing at me hard.

10-54 was negative, and local meaning, for this area or region. It became painfully obvious to me that this subject had learned our codes from a scanner, and knew this referred to someone being wanted.

Finally my officer returned. Out of breath he panted, "He ran like a gazelle" not giving any regard to little ol' me having been taunted by the thugs cohorts.

The point to this story - No wonder agencies change their codes!

Police Officers on Patrol - A great book for kids


Signals are a little different than 10 Codes. Signals usually refer to they type of call, (see signal 9 above) whereas 10 Codes are used to short cut communication.

Signals serve the same purpose as 10 codes as they provide brevity in the conversation and make it easier for the dispatcher to record information.

An officer may not want to describe something at a scene that others may react to if revealed in plain language. Sensitive verbiage may be traumatic for family members to overhear.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet


The Phonetic Alphabet

There are two common phonetic alphabets in use among Public Safety agencies. One is the NATO phonetic alphabet, and it uses phonetics such as alpha, bravo, delta. The other is the LAPD phonetic alphabet, which uses common names such as Adam, Bob, David.

The phonetic alphabet is used to clarify what is being said through sometimes fuzzy radio transmissions. Even over the phone line, it can be much easier to understand, A Adam, as opposed to the number 8.

If you think about how many times someone here's F when it was really spelled with an S. Same goes for V Victor, E Edward, B Bob and many others.

Having used both phonetic alphabets, I have to say it's difficult not to transpose the two. It's obviously difficult for others also as I've heard many an officer say, david, when our agency uses delta.


Dispo's as we lovingly call them, are codes for how the call ends.

Medic, "We'll be clear RAMA" Refused against medical advise.

Officer, "Close this A, ALPHA, R ROMEO," A is for arrest, R for report.

Or after a particularly grueling traffic stop for the dispatcher, running someone's driver's license more than once, as well as the five other people in the car. Checking and double checking to make sure no one is wanted.

Officer: "I''ll be clear W Whiskey" Warning - aaaargh! The officer just didn't realize how badly I wanted an arrest!

And now I'm 10-07 (end of watch)


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