Reporter’s toolkit: Decoding the scanner

You might be sitting in the newsroom next to the scanner, or suddenly find yourself assigned to a breaking story, and have no idea what all those codes mean.

Not to worry – the fantastic Zev Singer, night reporter extraordinaire, has broken them down, and agreed to let me post them here.

We send this list of codes to our new interns and apprentices and frankly – to anyone who has forgotten.

In our newsroom, the scanners we’re hearing are fire and ambulance communications. Police are on digital communications that our scanner doesn’t pick up. This isn’t a huge deal, because ambulance and fire are usually called if it’s a big incident. Once in a while, our scanner will hear OC Transpo security guys too, but not usually.

Okay, terms, courtesy of Mr. Singer:

MVC or MVA: Motor Vehicle Collision or Motor Vehicle Accident (they use both)

VSA: Vital Signs Absent. While this is clearly an important one, when we hear it, we listen a bit more to see if it’s a medical, in which case it’s not likely news.

10-2s: The ambulance and fire dispatchers refer to police officers as “Ten-twos.” You’ll hear it in the context of the dispatchers, for example, telling the paramedics arriving on scene that “The scene is not yet secure. Wait for ten-twos.” It’s one way of knowing that the call could be interesting.

Working Fire: This means a fire has taken hold of something combustible and has started to really go. With fires, many of the calls on the scanner start off as a “report of smoke,” and many end with the fire scene command telling dispatch it’s a “pot on the stove,” meaning it was contained there and the house or building is not at risk. A working fire is past that stage. You’ll hear dispatch say they are “putting in a working fire.” That means they are designating this a working fire and all the relevant fire stations will follow the corresponding protocols, either coming to the scene, or moving over to cover for another station that responded, etc. When we hear working fire, we let the photo desk know right away. It doesn’t always turn out to be a major story — and in fact we don’t absolutely always go as reporters. But it’s often worth a photo.

Fully involved: When a fire is beyond “working” and has taken hold of the whole structure, or car, under discussion, they’ll say that structure or car is “fully involved.”

Second alarm: The bigger a fire is, the more alarms. If they “put in a second alarm” it means they need more trucks and firefighters. You can also have third and fourth alarms on the really big fires.

Exposures: Sometimes you’ll hear the fire command chiefs talking to the dispatchers about “exposures.” What they mean are structures of things near the building that’s on fire that are at risk because of the potential for the fire to spread. There’s actually a standardized numbering system where they talk about “side one” “side two” “side three” and “side four.” Side one is what the firefighters are looking at from the road. Side two is the next one to the left. Side three is the back, and side four is to the right from the road.

Defensive position: Sometimes, if a house is “fully involved” the firefighters will take a “defensive position,” which means they are shifting away from trying to go in and put out the fire and into a position where they just do what they can from the outside and try to keep the fire from spreading.

Consideration: the ambulance dispatch has to give some thought to which hospital they send ambulances to. Kids pretty much have to go to CHEO. For adults, the Civic and the General are the two main hospitals. The General doesn’t have a trauma unit, only the Civic does. Sometimes, it’s obvious that the patient has to get to the closer one as soon as possible. But in cases where there’s a bit more time, the dispatch tries to balance things so neither of the hospitals gets too overloaded. If one of the hospitals has their emerg department jam packed, they’ll tell the ambulance dispatch that, and the dispatch will try to avoid sending people there if they can. They’ll talk about this by saying “The General is on consideration.”

 Code Zero: This one means there isn’t a single ambulance available. Pretty rare, but it has happened.

Tactical: I don’t know how often this comes up on the scanner, but just to know, the Ottawa Police Service refers to its SWAT team as the “tactical unit.”

Rollovers and barricades: Some things happen a lot more often than you’d ever know if you didn’t sit beside a newsroom scanner. Cars roll over onto their roofs, and angry, possibly armed men barricade themselves into houses with a greater frequency than the average Joe would guess. In most cases, neither type turns out to be terribly newsworthy, surprising as it may seem. The person in the car isn’t so badly hurt and the angry man gets talked down, albeit hours later. This is not to dampen your hunger for news; clearly each one can turn into a big story. Just to keep in mind, so you don’t freak out fully right away.

Training: Speaking of not freaking out right away, here’s one more important thing to keep in mind. Sometimes, you’ll hear an unbelievably compelling call on the scanner about victims trapped inside a burning house or some other wild situation. Then, hopefully before you’ve driven all the way out to some remote location, you’ll find out that what you were hearing was a training exercise. The fire fighters do a lot of that and the radio communication doesn’t distinguish between that and a real call. After a while, you tend to develop an ear for what’s training — or at least, some of us think we’ve developed such an ear — and we just call to ask “That’s training, right?” I could tell you stories of having driven a far way only to arrive at a scene and be smirked at by firefighters in training.

That’s all I can think of at the moment — oh, wait one more I learned from Tom Spears from his days in the Toronto Star scanner room, and I have heard it used by ambulance dispatch since Tom told me about it:

HBD: Has Been Drinking.

 Zev’s final advice for our interns:

Enjoy the scanner — just never, ever touch anything on it other than the volume switch or all hell breaks loose and [your managing editor] kills you.

The Citizen’s David Reevely adds these codes: 

Code 3 and Code 4: Instructions to paramedics on how fast they should try to get to a scene to which they’re being sent. Code 4 means lights and sirens because there’s a real chance somebody is in the process of dying. Code 3 means head over there but it’s not as urgent, so don’t disrupt traffic and potentially put yourselves and others at risk. We never hear of Code 2 and Code 1. Code Zero, as indicated, means something else entirely.

Priority 1 and Priority 2: Instructions to firefighters on how fast they should try to get to a scene to which they’re being sent. These work the opposite direction to the Code system for paramedics. Priority 1 means lights and sirens, Priority 2 means it’s less urgent.

Wake-up program: Several times a day, you’ll hear dispatchers talking to firefighters about the Wake-up program. This is a city program that has firefighters going door to door asking whether people have smoke detectors and offering them cheap ones if they don’t.

David also notes:  When many calls first come in, both ambulances and firefighters get sent in response, the mission being to get some kind of help out there as quickly as possible. Firefighters have basic emergency medical training and their trucks carry portable defibrillators for heart-attack victims, so they can often start treatment on someone even if it takes paramedics a few minutes longer to get to a particular scene. Firefighters have heavy equipment that paramedics don’t, stuff that’s useful at things like car crashes where both kinds of emergency workers are needed, and probably police as well.

Got any we’ve missed? Feel free to add them here.

(Note: Why yes, that image  is Rosco P. Coltrain’s squad car from the Dukes of Hazzard.)

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