Police radio can sound like an algebra class, with all those 10-4s and 187s. National Public Radio reports that more departments are trying a radical approach: asking officers who need backup or want to report a robbery to do so in plain English. “In the case of a large-scale disaster, we all have to be able to go on the radio and talk to each other,” says Mike Williams of the Chattanooga, Tn., Police Department.
Chattanooga was on the forefront of the switch to plain talk a couple years ago, when officials realized agencies couldn’t communicate during tornadoes and floods. Coded police talk came about during the 1920s and ’30s, when radio channels were scarce. Officers needed to get on and off the air quickly. They created “10 codes,” later signal codes. The real push to plain English came after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, when neighboring police responded to New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans only to be met by confusion on the radio. Three years ago, the Department of Homeland Security asked police agencies to make the switch.