Don’t Rely on Codes for Emergency Protocols

Codes often cause confusion, even among campus personnel who are well trained.

Many campus organizations still use code words and phrases to alert staff to implement emergency protocols such as lockdown, reverse evacuation, severe weather sheltering and other life and death situations with the potential for mass casualty losses.  As actual school crisis situations and testing have shown, it is extremely common for school officials to become confused and to implement the wrong protocol even when regular training and drills are conducted to teach staff what the codes mean.

For example, when a murder/suicide with a handgun occurred in a Georgia school restroom many years ago, a number of teachers did not recognize the code and failed to lock their classroom doors.  Fortunately, the aggressor had killed himself and did not attempt to enter any of the unlocked classrooms.  More recently, during a school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness audit for a large urban school district in a high–crime community, numerous employees selected or communicated the wrong emergency protocol because they were confused about which code matched what protocol in spite of regular drills at each school. During approximately 200 simulations of school crisis situations using dynamic video and scripted scenarios and scoring tools, many employees could not recall what code was needed to announce the appropriate life-saving protocol. In fact, two building administrators inadvertently ordered lockdowns for a scenario of a tornado approaching their school. 

While combining a color with a plain-speak phrase tied to matching color tabs in an emergency reference chart can improve reliability of communications, using code words and phrases alone can be pretty unreliable. An exception to this might be a duress code phrase for use to summon help.  Many school transportation departments use this approach.  An important point here is that there is only one phrase that is used and the employees do not have to choose between multiple phrases.

As mentioned in an earlier blog on lockdowns, it is important to remember that lockdown protocols have frequently failed miserably when school officials have had to make fast decisions to order a lockdown even though previous lockdown drills worked fine. This is often due to the difference in initiating a drill when the decision to announce the drill has been made in advance rather than by an employee faced with a fast breaking situation. When one considers the horrific consequences of 800 children and staff being instructed to implement a lockdown when a tornado is bearing down on their school are considered, the risks of using codes with no plain speak and a self-evident phrase become more apparent.

Related Articles:

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.

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

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.

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety HQ