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5 Secret Codes Used to Alert Employees of Emergency Without Alarming the Public

25 May 2017
 May 25, 2017

Have you ever witnessed a strange message issued over a public tannoy or heard coded phrases being spoken by a security person and wondered exactly what it all meant?

In times of increased security, the use of coded announcements is nothing new. Emergency codes are inconspicuous words and phrases that are often used in public areas to alert those in charge, of possible danger. This allows staff to control an emerging situation, so they can investigate further and put emergency plans into action without causing mass panic.

Failing to do this can make matters worse, as was the case in 1913 when 73 people tragically died after a stampede at the Italian Hall in Michigan, which was caused by someone falsely shouting that the building was on fire.

Keeping people safe and carrying out controlled evacuations is a priority in an emergency. Here’s an insight into some of the secret code words used to indicate a variety of threats.

Inspector Sands

Often heard as: “Could Inspector Sands please report to the…”

Means: There is a fire

Inspector Sands or Mr. Sands is one of the most commonly used emergency codes for indicating that there is a fire in the vicinity. If a fire has been reported, a tannoy announcement will ask for an Inspector Sands to make their way to a specified area, which is where the suspected fire is. This phrase originates from theatres where in the past a bucket of sand would be kept for extinguishing fires. In more recent times it has been widely adopted by public entertainment venues, shopping centers and railway stations including on the London Underground.

On hearing a call for Inspector Sands, station staff have a set period of time in which to investigate before issuing a full-scale evacuation. If you’re a regular commuter, you may already be familiar with Inspector Sands, as on the tube it is often automatically played when a fire detector has been triggered. Underground staff also use a variation of this, ‘Inspector Gravel’ which is code for a bomb alert.

Time Check

Often heard as: “Time check: The Time is…”

Means: Bomb threat

In these difficult times, the need for having a procedure in place to deal with terrorism is a necessary measure. Many public places, especially large department stores use a coded time check, announcing the current time to indicate to staff that there has been a bomb threat and they will need to follow the correct procedure for these circumstances. Often this will involve all members of staff stopping what they are doing immediately and searching for a suspect package, before preparing to evacuate.

Code Bravo

Often heard as “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!”

Means: Security alert

Security is a key priority at airports and on board flights, so there are a number of specialist code words used to indicate different types of emergencies. One of the most well-known is a ‘Code Bravo,’ which means that there has been a security breach/threat. In airports, security staff may issue the call ‘Bravo, Bravo, Bravo’ and order everyone to freeze, to help them identify a suspect. Other codes used in aviation include ‘Pan-Pan,’ a non-critical emergency call often in the case of a breakdown that is less serious and does not require the distress call ‘Mayday.’ In the event of a plane being hijacked, the code 7500 is used by the pilot to secretly communicate the danger to cabin crew and ground staff, without alerting passengers or the hijackers.

Code Oscar

Often heard as: “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!”

Means: Man overboard

Avoiding panic amongst passengers is even more important in a closed environment such as a ship. For this reason, there are an array of secret terms crew can use. To avoid misunderstandings, a code word such as ‘Oscar’ (meaning someone has fallen off the boat) will be said three times in a row. Although code words used will vary, some common examples are:

  • Charlie, Charlie, Charlie – security threat on the boat
  • Echo, Echo, Echo – imminent danger ahead e.g. collision with another ship, high winds at port
  • Red Party – fire onboard
  • Operation Bright Star – medical emergency, urgent assistance required
  • Operation Rising Star – someone has died

Doctor Brown

Often heard as: “Dr. Brown”

Means: Threat of violence, security needed

Some hospitals, particularly in the US, use ‘Doctor Brown’ as a code to protect doctors and nurses, alerting them to the threat of violent patients in the vicinity. In some cases, paging ‘Doctor Brown’ will automatically send for security to come to their aid. Although the exact phrase used can vary, ‘Code Silver’ may indicate that the attacker is armed.

Advice on Using Emergency Codes in the Workplace

When hearing an emergency code, employees may have mere seconds to recognise the danger and act. Therefore it’s best to consider the following:

  • Make sure emergency codes are known by everyone and people are trained to stay calm and follow the correct procedure upon hearing them
  • Use short phrases that are easy to remember, appropriate for your environment and could potentially be passed off as a normal announcement
  • If possible allow the location of the emergency to be specified within the context of the phrase e.g. ‘please report to the…’
  • Don’t have too many code phrases or people may mix these up, only have ones that are relevant and critical to your environment and avoid using a code word for multiple emergencies
  • Minimise the possibility of confusion, for example if you have a Mr. Sands, don’t use this name to indicate an emergency!
  • Carry out procedural tests to ensure staff are well versed in what these announcements mean and what to do