Plain Language Saves Lives

EMS1, a leader in news about emergency medicine and prehospital care, recently discussed the ongoing move from wonky “10-codes” to plain language between EMS personnel, hospitals and dispatch. As both a plain language professional and an Emergency Medical Technician, I have opinions. (I usually do.)

Admittedly, 10-codes are fun. They’re like you’re own private language that no one knows. When I was in EMT school in Santa Barbara, I could tell someone a friend and I were coming over for dinner by saying, “10-8 with 1, code 7.” (If you’re going to annoy your friends with obscure language they don’t understand, I recommend Klingon.)

But 10-codes aren’t universal. I spoke the 10-code language set out by Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services and the Sheriff’s Office. Other counties have different 10-codes. So if you’re a dispatcher or an EMT or a sheriff from another county, then (respectfully) there’s no guarantee we’re literally all speaking the same language if we’re using 10-codes.

If an EMS dispatcher in, say Savannah, Georgia instructed me to go “code 1,” I’d take my time since that’s what code 1 means in Santa Barbara. However, in Savannah, code 1 means top level priority with life-threatening injury, and use lights and sirens; not knowing Savannah’s 10-codes, I could have just killed my patient. If Savannah wanted to speak Santa Barbara’s EMS language, they would have instructed me to rush there by saying, “code 3.” You can see where there’s significant room for life-altering error in 10-codes.

Just a handful of different 10-codes used by emergency medical services throughout the United States

Ten-codes are fun, but they can’t come before saving lives and property. Plain language saves lives.

Thanks for reading! I’m 10-10 (out of service for now).


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