Codes Without Confusion

“The red ants are in the building,” chimes the message over the intercom. Have insects infested the school? No, the coded message is meant to inform faculty members that they should follow established procedures to lock down the facility. Unfortunately, some teachers and substitute teachers misunderstand the lock down code and fail to secure their rooms properly. The failure to lock even a single door during an emergency can mean the difference between a cleanly executed lockdown and an out-of-control crisis.

Does this sound like an exaggeration? In a real situation a few years ago, an elementary school principal’s efforts to prepare his staff for potential emergencies paid off immensely. When a crisis almost took place at his school soon after he had drilled his staff on lockdown procedures, his staff functioned flawlessly. A staff member observed a man with a handgun being chased by several other men with guns near the school. The school employee ran into the front office and instructed the office staff members to order a lockdown. The code to indicate a lockdown of the facility was quickly given over the intercom, and each employee in the school did his or her part to secure the school. Because the principal had established a system where one of several designees could authorize a lockdown, a tragic situation was avoided.

The man with the gun turned out to be a felony suspect. The men who were chasing him were plainclothes police officers. Because of the principal’s efforts, the doors to the school where locked when the man desperately tried to open not just one, but several exterior doors to take hostages. Because all of the outside doors to the school were locked, he was not able to gain access to his intended victims.

This real-life example in a typical elementary school, in a typical community, on what began as a typical day, illustrates the importance of simple and effective lockdown procedures and codes. Simple codes are required, codes that will not confuse those who must understand them on rare but critical occasions.

Have you thought very carefully about the codes you use? Are they more likely to cause panic than plain language? Have they been tested through properly planned drills? Will your codes aid in effective emergency communications or will they cause confusion during a crisis? All of these questions should be answered before, not during, a crisis.

As a general rule, school emergency codes should be extremely simple, with the emphasis on reliable communication over secrecy. A simple“code red” beats“the red ants are in the building” any day. If one critical door may not get locked due to desire for secrecy, the need for the KISS (keep it straight and simple) principle becomes apparent. It is more important to secure the facility than to try to control reactions.

Codes should also be standardized throughout the school district or institution. With many school personnel working in more than one building, it is important to prevent miscommunication. Again, the critical nature of the communication supercedes the need for “secret squirrel” covertness.

The use of codes should also be limited to a few critical functions. Normally, it is best to restrict the use of codes to important tasks such as lockdowns, evacuations and other specific measures. It may be advisable to have codes for bomb threat situations as well. Having multiple codes to describe a large number of emergency situations can cause confusion during an emergency.

It is important to weigh the need to use codes against the potential problems caused by miscommunication when they are used. If there is not a significant benefit to require the use of codes, plain language should be used.

A number of schools have had positive feedback after each employee has been issued a flip chart containing step-by-step instructions for each code. For schools that cannot afford flip charts, instruction sheets can be inexpensively photocopied and distributed to all personnel. Some schools require that the instruction sheets be kept with the roll book at all times.

Another key issue is the need to ensure that everyone who will need to take action when a code is given is properly briefed on the codes. Particular emphasis should be placed on training substitute teachers and volunteers on emergency codes and procedures before they begin working in a school.

Properly developed codes and accompanying procedures can help to maintain effective communications during a crisis. Through careful consideration, testing and a healthy dose of common sense, it is easy to develop a practical system of codes for your emergency operations plan.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at