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Va. State Police Swap '10-4' For 'Message Understood'

Trooper Steve Mittendorff's first reaction to the idea of dropping 10 codes was:
Trooper Steve Mittendorff's first reaction to the idea of dropping 10 codes was: "You've got to be kidding me." (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, local governments have spent millions on high-tech radios to improve communication among police forces. Now, Virginia is taking the next step: changing the very way cops talk.

Starting this month, Virginia State Police have banned the "10 codes" used by generations of officers to flag everything from murders to bathroom breaks. Gone is the language of "10-4" and "What's your 10-20 [location]?"

The codes are as much a part of police culture as badges and coffee. But over time, individual police departments have adapted the codes in their own ways, creating confusion when they have to work together -- such as on Sept. 11.

Eager to avoid such mix-ups, Virginia's government has become one of the first in the nation to try to eliminate traditional cop talk. For months, officials in Richmond have worked with police and firefighters to come up with a substitute for 10 codes, finally deciding on a statewide "common language protocol."

In other words, English.

Police have reacted with a certain amount of 10-32 (alarm).

"My first reaction was, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " said Trooper Steve Mittendorff, 26, as he patrolled the Dulles Toll Road early this month. "How am I going to stop using something I've been using all these years?"

The switch reflects why it is so challenging for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to create a national emergency response system. If someone sets off a dirty bomb at the Pentagon, Arlington County police might be on the radio with officers arriving from Fairfax County, Alexandria, the District or Maryland.

To Arlington police, "10-13" means "officer in trouble." To Montgomery County police, the same code means "request wrecker." Even everyday police commands can get lost in translation: In Alexandria, "10-54" refers to an alcohol sensor. For Virginia State Police, it's livestock on the highway.

"It's nuts," said Chris Essid, who is leading Virginia's campaign to get all police and firefighters to switch to plain English. "I had no idea how attached people became to codes."

A Simpler Time

The 10-code system started catching on in the 1920s, when police radios had only one channel. Officers needed to bark out information succinctly to avoid tying up the system. But over time, a Babel of codes developed.

The jumble wasn't such a problem when police were on different radio systems, or were not as tuned in to the potential for apocalyptic disasters. But five years ago, as law enforcement agencies rushed to the Pentagon, they found that sometimes they were speaking in different tongues.


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