Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive July 19, 2013)


By Bob Cooper


In the 1970s the most listened-to radio station in BC was XJF-79, the Vancouver Police Radio.  Digital encryption didn’t come along until years later and Radio Shack made a killing selling scanners and crystals that would give you the exact frequency of police departments and RCMP detachments across the Lower Mainland.  Police buffs, criminals, amateurs wanting some excitement, everyone listened to us.  Every Press Room in the city had a scanner and it wasn’t uncommon for reporters and camera crews to beat us to a scene.

There were 2 channels, A & B.  One handled Districts 1 and 2 which was the North half of the city while the other handled Districts 3 and 4.  Each position had a boom mike and a foot pedal to transmit so the operator’s hands would be free to write notes on a call slip or talk on the phone.  These pedals were apt to stick open from time to time resulting in private conversations (often involving bosses, ex-wives, or the new girl in Case Reports) between the two operators being broadcast city-wide as well as through every speaker in Headquarters resulting in greater or lesser degrees of embarrassment.

The equipment itself had been purchased from the Seattle Police Department some years before when they declared it obsolete.  The Radio Room was in the Northwest corner of the main floor of 312 Main Street.  It wasn’t air conditioned so the windows were open to get a cross breeze and if a truck went by on Cordova Street you had to ask the car to repeat.  As systems go, it was far from perfect but it worked and most of us who went through the transition from analogue to digital wish they’d stayed with analogue.

Unlike the RCMP who operated on a byzantine cipher system known as the 10-Code (which was immortalized by Broderick Crawford in the 1950s TV series “Highway Patrol”), VPD radio traffic was in plain English and very controlled, with transmissions being short and to the point.  I was present once when a frustrated RCMP Staff Sergeant told a class of Mounties that he wished they could all spend a few nights riding with the Vancouver City Police so they could learn radio discipline.   The only Codes we had were Code One (no rush), Code Two (as soon as you can), Code Three (lights & siren), Code 4 (emergency situation, usually a car chase or PC in Trouble), and Code 5 (situation extremely dangerous).  Of these, the only ones ever used were Code 4 and Code 5 with the others being understood.

In the early 1980s the VPD adopted the 10-Code, a decision more baffling than the Strategic Plan with the code itself being every bit as useless.  We were told it was designed to (a) enhance operational security, and (b) allow us to communicate with the RCMP in the event of a major catastrophe.  Most of us suspected it was a self-generated project at promotion time, or someone in Planning & Research with nothing to do, which was more dangerous than a French kiss from Michael Douglas.

In terms of operational security, this code fooled no one.  Sheets detailing the codes were freely available and even without them most people could decipher the common ones after a few hours of listening.  Most importantly, the designers hadn’t come up with a way of encoding addresses or locations which is a pretty important piece of information for field units.  When the Emergency Bell rang and the operator broadcast a “10-72 at Canada Trust at Four-One and Cambie” the slowest press intern could figure out what was going on and where.   Additionally, the switch to digital has made the security concern completely redundant.  As for communicating with the RCMP, pretty much every Mountie I ever met spoke English (although with a few of the guys from Quebec and a couple from Newfoundland you really had to listen closely) so why wouldn’t we just use a common means of communication that we’d used all of our lives?  It requires almost no thinking which is crucial in a stressful situation.

The answer to questions like this is usually ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it’ and what sparked this column was the recent article in PostMedia (10-Codes on North American phase out) in which the person in charge of support services for RCMP communications centers (in other words, she does this for a living) recommends scrapping the 10 code.  Her view is supported by both the Hamilton and Lethbridge police departments who have already dropped it and supply some very good reasons why.  Both the VPD and the RCMP defended the status quo although the RCMP acknowledge the need to improve clarity and “inter-provincial consistency”.  VPD spokesman Const. Brian Montague said that dispatchers can convey certain information more efficiently and cited the example of a person with a history or violence and robbery as being a 10-81 and 10-82.  No criticism of PC Montague who was just articulating the VPD’s position which is his job and he does it very well, but the words ‘violence’ and ‘robbery’ make much more sense than 10-81 or 10-82 and each has one less syllable than its code version.

Time to get back to plain speaking.



Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



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