- Jason Lee/Reuters
If you need to keep people safe in a time of crisis or emergency, the best thing to do might be to keep them in the dark about what’s going on.
When police, hospital staff, and other institutions or organizations have to communicate with each other without sending the public into a panic, they use secret codes to tell each other what’s happening.
Here are a few of them.
Hospitals use colors to signal various kinds of emergencies.
- AP/Gerald Herbert
In 2008, the Washington State Hospital Association and the Oregon Association of Hospitals & Health Systems standardized color codes for emergencies in all of their hospitals. “Red” means there’s a fire, and “black” indicates a bomb threat. “Code Silver” refers to weapons or hostage situations, and “Code Gray” means there are combative or violent persons on the premises.
For medical emergencies involving people in need of resuscitation, emergency staff call “Code Blue.”
Some malls and convention centers use the word ‘Nora’ when calling for help.
If you’re dealing with a violent or otherwise belligerent person and don’t want to further aggravate them by calling law enforcement, one way to deal with that is to ask for Nora.
The name is actually an acronym that stands for “Need Officer Right Away.” While it’s not always the standard, places like the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu and the Montgomery Mall in Alabama use the code to discreetly call law enforcement.
Ship crew members use a variety of phrases to indicate men have gone overboard.
- US Navy
Members of a ship crew have a vocabulary of emergency phrases to signal scenarios like a person overboard or parts in need of emergency repair.
The phrase “Mr. Mob” refers to a man overboard. “Code blue,” which was brought over from hospital codes, is used to refer to a medical emergency. “Bravo bravo bravo” can indicate that there’s a fire on the boat, without causing panic among passengers.
The police use more than 100 number-based codes on their radios.
Police scanners – the radio frequencies law enforcement officers use to communicate – are accessible to the public. If you listen in, you’ll occasionally hear officers communicate using numbered codes instead of words.
There are well over 100 of these numbered codes, called 10 or 11 codes. Most are used to communicate acknowledgement or make requests – “10-4,” the popular code meaning, “OK, understood” has made it into civilian vocabulary.
Other numbered codes describe actual crimes. “505,” for instance, means reckless driving, and “240,” refers to assault, in accordance with California’s Penal Code Section 240.
If the general public listens to the code-heavy scanners, the numerical system keeps most people from knowing which crimes are occurring around them.
Some homeless people look for visual symbols that date back to the Great Depression.
- Ryan Somma/Flickr
The word “hobo” used to refer to a traveling worker rather than just a homeless person or panhandler. Starting around the early 1900s, these nomads used a system of etched codes to tell other hobos if there was danger nearby or if they could take shelter with a kindly host. That allowed them sneak into certain places without creating a scene or scaring strangers.
Nowadays, non-profit organizations and generous individuals are adopting the system and putting up similar symbols to help the homeless. Paris’ Le Carillon project is placing pictographs on shop signs to let homeless people know what services are available to them, from free telephone calls to food and clean water.
Utility companies use codes to mark where pipes and equipment are located.
— HuffPost UK (@HuffPostUK) January 18, 2016
Ironically, the public can sometimes notice – and misinterpret – hidden codes rather than gloss over them, causing the very panic the system is meant to avoid. In 2013, some British media outlets mistook chalk signs to be marks left by burglars signaling easy or insecure properties.
In actuality, these marks are left by utility companies to signal the locations of nearby equipment, pipes, or placements for new infrastructure.