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Back to Archives | Back to May 2008 Contents 

Making a Successful Transition to Common Radio Language

By William C. O’Toole, Executive Director, Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy, and Assistant Chief of Police (Retired), Montgomery County, Maryland; and Captain Eddie Reyes, Sector Two Commander, Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department

everal events in recent years, including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area; and the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have highlighted the need for interoperable radio systems among law enforcement agencies. By acquiring improved technologies and 800-megahertz (MHz) radio systems, public safety agencies have, for the most part, improved their technical ability to interoperate with neighboring jurisdictions during periods of mutual aid. Accordingly, many officers are listening to and sharing radio transmissions with their colleagues in overlapping or adjoining jurisdictions, which they previously were unable to do.

In addition to relying solely on police radios, many officers today communicate from their cruisers through mobile data computer transmissions, cellular telephone calls, text messaging, and e-mail. Communications between and among law enforcement officers and agencies have improved significantly in the past few years, and police first responders and administrators alike have acquired and embraced numerous technological innovations. Unfortunately, however, these officers are not always speaking the same language; thus, the largest obstacle remaining in the way of interoperability is in the human ability to communicate effectively.

“That’s Not What I Meant!”

One of the most memorable lines in U.S. film history was uttered by actor Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is . . . failure to communicate.” On September 23, 2005, a routine radio transmission between a Maryland State Police (MSP) trooper and a Montgomery County, Maryland, police dispatcher similarly illustrated a communication failure.

The trooper, who had been monitoring the county police radio channel in his cruiser, came upon a minor vehicle collision along Interstate 270 in Rockville. The trooper reached for his microphone and—forgetting for the moment that he was tuned to the county police radio channel—interrupted a routine dispatch on the county channel and transmitted, “I have a 10-50, southbound 270, prior to 495.” In MSP language, a “10-50” is an accident, and the trooper merely wanted to inform his dispatcher that he was assisting with a minor collision.

For the Montgomery County Police (MCP), however, a 10-50 was the former code for “officer in trouble” that had been used up to two months earlier by the county police, before it converted to its version of a common language protocol. The MCP was actually the first agency in the region to make this change, hoping others would follow. The MCP dispatcher and numerous Montgomery County and Rockville city patrol units were unsure if the trooper was in trouble or merely transmitting about a fender-bender.

Because the trooper failed to answer his radio after his initial transmission, the MCP sent officers from two police districts—their headquarters and the City of Rockville—for a priority response to assist a trooper who was believed to be “in trouble.” For several long minutes, numerous officers continued to respond to assist their fellow officer, who could not be located by radio. At one point, a Rockville city police officer called the State Police barracks on the direct telephone line, but the MSP had no information about the status of their trooper.

Eventually, the MSP trooper returned to the radio and relayed, “Ocean King [OK], just trying to get two vehicles over to the shoulder.” While this event was of short duration, was determined not to involve an emergency, and was eventually resolved successfully, it nevertheless illustrates the potential consequences when there is a “failure to communicate” due to language differences among law enforcement agencies.

Regional Commitment from Law Enforcement Leaders

Commenting on the matter of improving law enforcement communications, Chief M. Douglas Scott of the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department has said, “It is our responsibility, as police leaders, to remove any remaining impediments to effective communications between law enforcement officers and agencies. In today’s working environment, it makes no sense that an officer in one jurisdiction might fail to understand a critical piece of information overheard on the police radio because we failed to provide for a common speaking platform.”

In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the Council of Governments—a regional organization of local governments surrounding the nation's capital—recently adopted a resolution calling for police agencies in the region to eliminate voluntarily the use of radio codes that are not deemed essential to officer safety and efficient operations. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Office of the Governor, Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinator’s Office; the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials; and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have all endorsed conversion to radio “common language.”1 And recently, a best practices model for common radio language has been adopted and implemented by the Virginia State Police (VSP) and by several other law enforcement agencies across the commonwealth.2

In 2007, police chiefs and sheriffs representing 31 law enforcement agencies throughout Northern Virginia unanimously endorsed the establishment of an interagency work group to research and develop a regional common language protocol to bridge the “human” communications gap that has continued to exist among Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies.3 Chief Scott led this important initiative not only on behalf of his department but also for his fellow leaders from allied Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies. Their leadership example in support of this transition was nothing short of exemplary.

The work group consisted of a diverse mix of police and sheriff first responders, emergency communications personnel, and supervisory and command officers. The primary goals for this group were to develop a common radio language that would facilitate clarity of public safety communications while simultaneously ensuring officer/ deputy safety and efficiency of operations. Because of the many different and unique agency habits, practices, and cultures and the use of different radio codes, a policy that called for the use of common language only during mutual-aid situations would fall short. Under stress and in situations such as major community events, pursuits, and other critical events, officers would revert to speaking a radio language most familiar to them and their agencies.

To make a common regional language genuinely effective, participating agencies must use it habitually. Therefore, traditional agency-specific radio protocols would have to be abandoned so that common language could become the norm throughout the region. Chief Scott informed the group that the leaders of the Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies were neither endorsing nor requiring any specific plan for this initiative. Rather, the chiefs and sheriffs merely insisted that the use of radio 10-codes be significantly reduced while achieving as much uniformity as possible.

Developing the Process and Achieving Consensus

After some initial discussion, the work group unanimously agreed that it should start any discussion of a common radio protocol with a “blank page” rather than try to persuade several agencies to conform to one particular agency’s existing use of 10-codes. Rather than identifying the easiest solution, the members of this group were more committed to identifying the best practices for all the agencies represented, individually and collectively. Group participants agreed that some number of “codes” would always be necessary for officer/deputy safety and for confidentiality purposes.

Eventually, the group concluded that the best practices protocol already endorsed by the Virginia governor’s office and implemented by the VSP was a logical starting point for their agencies to consider adopting. The commonwealth’s best practices protocol contains only four “signal codes,” which describe when an officer is in immediate danger; when an officer needs assistance, but there is no immediate threat to the officer; when an arrest has been made or will be attempted; and when there is a need to convey confidential, sensitive, or safety information. All other radio transmissions are in “plain English.” Fortunately, this recently established model, which had already achieved initial success elsewhere in Virginia, was well suited to meet most of the needs of the involved agencies and would require only minor modification to address the remaining objectives of the group.

Further discussion centered on whether additional signal codes would be necessary for individual agencies. Initially, some agency representatives stated that they would need to have separate and specific signal codes to identify situations involving wanted persons, individuals known to resist arrest or fight with police, armed persons, mentally ill persons, bomb threats, or school shootings, as well as a signal to alert officers to stay out of a particular area (such as when an undercover operation or stakeout is occurring or for “bait car” activations). It was initially suggested that the group draft additional signal codes for each of these specific situations (beyond the four VSP signal codes), by adding “Signal 5,” “Signal 6,” “Signal 7,” and so on.

After much discussion, group members fortunately agreed that most of these specific designations are already covered within one of the existing signal code categories. The group further acknowledged that adding more signal codes would defeat the work group’s objectives by causing more confusion, both for officers and dispatchers having to learn new codes as well as for others operating in a mutual-aid environment. Furthermore, the group concluded that many of these notifications could be made in plain English on the radio, after a signal code is given indicating that there is confidential or safety information to follow and after the responder moves to a location where the subject of an encounter cannot hear the transmission. It was also noted that some of these communications could be forwarded via mobile data computers (MDCs) and/or cellular telephones. The consensus of the group was to keep the number of additional signal codes—if any—to an absolute minimum.

All group members found it useful to discuss and debate at length the advantages and disadvantages of making changes to their established radio 10-codes and acknowledged the challenges that attempting to change habits and agency cultures would pose. However, they also agreed that doing so is a responsible and sensible course of action. The group members further recognized that this change could prove to be a hard sell to some first responders in their agencies (just as it was initially to some members of the work group). For this reason, group members were encouraged to meet with and solicit additional input from affected personnel from their agencies to gain a better understanding of how such changes would be received.

Along with the elimination of 10-codes and the identification of a small number of signal codes for the draft protocol, the group members also believed that it would be beneficial to have a uniform list of common phrases to be used in place of former 10-codes. A subgroup of the members worked independently on identifying and recommending a list of common phrases, which was eventually adopted by the entire group. Now, in addition to having common signal codes, every agency uses the same phrases to describe common practices such as “copy” or “direct” (the old 10-4), “in service” and “out of service,” “en route” and “on scene,” “tag check,” “person check,” “license check,” and so on.

The work group also unanimously recommended the adoption of the NATO phonetic alphabet for radio use (see table 1). The group acknowledged that many agencies currently use a variety of phonetic alphabet designations and that implementation of this practice was not as high a priority as the transition to common phrases and common signal codes. The group concluded, however, that adopting the internationally used and widely accepted phonetic alphabet model is the most logical decision for agencies seeking commonality in radio policies. This change could be introduced at the academy level and reinforced by dispatchers so that eventually this phonetic alphabet will become second nature to all responders and dispatchers.

Next Steps: Education, Training, and Selling It

The work group meeting concluded with the agreement to meet with groups of practitioners from members’ respective agencies to examine further whether there were any additional agency-specific needs regarding the use of radio signal codes. Group members anticipated that they likely would hear many of the same discussion points that the work group itself initially identified (such as the “need” for specific codes for many situations that the group eventually agreed could be covered by a signal code indicating that confidential or safety information is forthcoming). Group members agreed to consider and list any unique signal codes identified by their agency personnel for officer safety and/or confidentiality purposes but to try to make as persuasive a case as possible to encourage their personnel to understand and appreciate the value of adopting a common protocol.

Group members also conducted internal agency briefings for their chiefs or sheriffs and senior command staff to provide them with the latest update regarding the status of the group’s efforts. These briefings were also intended to identify any additional agency-specific needs that were not addressed by the draft protocol. After careful and deliberate consideration of all initial feedback provided by agency practitioners and senior staff, the group achieved a final consensus for a radio protocol draft.

Balancing Consistency with Ease of Adoption

After several months of hard work, significant research, solicitation of comments and input from agency personnel, and considerable refinement of the plan, group members established a regional common language radio protocol, a draft agency policy statement, and a common training presentation (in the form of a PowerPoint file) that reflected the regional commitment to this important public safety initiative. Police chiefs and sheriffs from all 31 Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies reviewed and endorsed this regional protocol at their April meeting. After the presentation, the chiefs and sheriffs unanimously agreed to adopt and implement this regional model, effective July 1, 2007.

Once the protocol was approved, all agencies were directed to send a representative to attend a “train-the-trainer” presentation. At that presentation, every agency received a CD-ROM with the training presentation; a draft agency policy; a “visor card” containing the signal codes, common phrases, and the phonetic alphabet; and responses to frequently asked questions so that these resources would be available to ensure consistent training of employees from all of the agencies.

Group members continued to provide assistance as agency advocates and points of contact, assisted in educational efforts to introduce the new radio protocol and to incorporate recommendations into agency policy and training documents, and helped with coordination of agency training on common language for officers, deputies, and dispatchers. In order to achieve “just-in-time” training, the group conducted the train-the-trainer session on May 16, 2007, and immediately thereafter began agency training for officers, deputies, and dispatchers so that every agency was prepared to implement the regional transition on July 1.

“Now We’re Talking!”

The 31 law enforcement agencies involved in this initiative, representing more than 5,000 Northern Virginia police officers and deputy sheriffs, are proud to join other Virginia law enforcement agencies in what is an exemplary model of law enforcement leadership and cooperation. In many cases today, agencies can no longer use the excuse that a failure to communicate effectively is due to shortcomings caused by incompatible technologies. Today, in Northern Virginia and throughout many other parts of the state, the final remaining barrier—the human language barrier—has been eliminated, allowing officers to communicate with language that everyone can understand.

For more information about this topic, readers may contact the authors via e-mail at or ■   

William C. O’Toole retired as assistant chief of police from the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department in July 2006 after more than 26 years of service. During his career, he served in a variety of patrol, investigative, supervisory, and command assignments. O’Toole has held executive positions as deputy commander of the Silver Spring District, director of the Training Academy, director of the Media Services Division, and chief of both the Field Services and Management Services Bureaus.

Captain Eddie L. Reyes has served as chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Police Technology Subcommittee as well as chair of the Virginia State Interoperability Executive Committee. He currently chairs the Executive Board of the IACP’s Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) Section and participates in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Advisory Working Group.


1See “Good Story: Virginia’s Common Language Protocol,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Lessons Learned, Information Sharing,, 4–5; and “Issue Paper: Plain Speech in Public Safety Communications,” Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), International, December 3, 2005, (both papers accessed April 7, 2008).
2The organizations/agencies that collaborated to develop the commonwealth’s best practices include the Virginia State Police, Commonwealth Interoperability Coordinator’s Office, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, Virginia State Firefighters Association, Virginia Association of Governmental Emergency Medical Services Administrators, Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Department, City of Virginia Beach, Henrico County Police, Powhatan County, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, Virginia Department of Corrections, Virginia Department of Transportation, Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and Virginia Department of Forestry.
3The 31 Northern Virginia law enforcement agencies involved in this transition to common radio language include the police departments for Alexandria, Arlington County, Dumfries, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, George Mason University, Haymarket, Herndon, Leesburg, Manassas City, Manassas Park City, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Middleburg, Northern Virginia Community College, Occoquan, Prince William County, Purcellville, Quantico, Vienna, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; the sheriff’s offices in Alexandria, Arlington County, Falls Church, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County; the Prince William County Adult Detention Center; and the Emergency Communication Centers in Arlington County, Fairfax County, and Prince William County.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 5, May 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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