Does Everyone Know What ‘Code Red’ Means?

During stressful situations, school teachers and administrators might not be able to effectively use codes.

While there have been many concerns expressed by experts about the use of codes to announce life-saving protocols such as lockdowns over the years, a number of campus organizations still rely heavily on them. Typically, folks from these organizations say they conduct frequent drills and that people are familiar enough with them to recall them in an emergency. Assessments and actual events, however, have shown that this is not always the case when people are attempting to operate under the stress of a real crisis.

We have seen numerous instances where some staff have not recognized codes during actual events. One such incident occurred in Carrolton, Ga., some years ago. While the district’s plan worked well overall, there were instances where substitute teachers did not know what “code red” meant. The district changed its procedures to correct this gap. 

At the same time, the problem with codes can also be on the other end.  For example, last week during a keynote at the South Dakota Emergency Management conference, my son and I did an interactive video tabletop activity using a scenario that clearly calls for an emergency lockdown. As I often do, I had asked for an administrator to volunteer to resolve the scenario in real time in front of the group. This creates a mild dose of stress that typically produces the same types of performance errors we have seen in our research of actual events and real time video table top simulations. In this instance, the building administrator stated that he would order a lockdown using the lockdown code, I asked him what the code was. As we have often seen before when people are placed under stress, he was unable to recall the code. 

Campus organizations that have decided to utilize code words and phrases should stress test this concept to see if the level of training and simulation is adequate to prepare people to issue and properly recognize codes under the extreme stress of an actual event. Typical lockdown drills do not create the level of stress described here and have been found to be an unreliable indicator of effectiveness. If mild stress usually indicates problems with reliability, we can expect that things will likely get worse under major stress.

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About the Author


Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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