Police officers in the state of Virginia are about to lose their decades-old “10-4” system, codes that are as much a badge of office as the police radio and the cruiser. This verbal shorthand for calling in incidents over the radio is being replaced by a lingo that is likely to be seen as much less “cool” but more practical – plain English.
Why? With only a few exceptions the typical messages that crackle over emergency radios have lost their purity over the years. The “10-4” call still means “message understood,” but others codes can mean different things to different people. For instance, a “10-50” call may or may not signal a traffic accident, and “10-13” may or may not be a call for a wrecker. Even the urgency of the “10-32” alarm call can vary from place to place.
The “10-4” system was developed in the 1920s and 1930s when primitive 1-channel radios made it necessary to convey messages in the shortest possible time. By the 1940s the system was so unruly that a police communication officers’ standards committee tried to impose order on it.
Since then, it has become more unruly. When the United States was attacked by terrorists on Sep 11 in 2001, according to The Washington Post in November, law-enforcement agencies found that sometimes they were speaking to each other in different tongues. Capt. Richard Slusher, communications officer for the Arlington Fire Department, told The Post that local police and the Pentagon police were talking 10 codes, but the FBI have their own little 10 codes. “You didn’t know what they were talking about,” he added
The Post points out that mix-ups are usually only inconvenient, but the potential for trouble is clear. A few years ago, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called in a “10-50” while working in Maryland. To police there, that means “officer down.” Squad cars rushed to the scene – to discover that, in the agent’s code, “10-50” meant traffic accident.
Ergonomists and other experts who prize clarity in communications condemn jargon, a word for any special “insider” language, but it has its defenders: lightly used and well-crafted, it has the potential to function like shorthand and speed up communications in a complex situation. And it is sometimes defended as a useful lingo that crosses borders.
In the case of police emergencies, however, it appears to be less than successful, and even the experts who defend jargon would have to say the “10-4” insider language is not crossing borders smoothly.
Source: The Washington Post