From what I’m reading in the newspaper, it looks like 10-Codes are going the way of the clattering Teletype. That’s probably wise in a post 9/11, super-smart cell phone world, but the loss of these police scanner hieroglyphics makes the newsgathering world just a bit more antiseptic, which I suppose is only inevitable. For the uninitiated, 10-Codes are of those abbreviated alpha-numerics favored by first responders the nation over. “10-4” is of course the most ubiquitous example - it can mean everything from “Yup” to “Hey - the hot donuts sign is flickering at Krispy Kreme!” But “10-4” is just the beginning. Stashed away somewhere in your favorite photog’s news unit is a crumpled call sheet filled to the margins with countless other 10-Codes. When I first started in this silly business, a crisp 10-Code translation sheet was issued with every antique tripod. After all, you can’t beat the first on scene if you can‘t understand the cryptic directions pouring from beneath your news unit’s dashboard. Is it any wonder so many young shooters committed countless codes to memory before ever twisting every button on their aging cameras? It sure explain all that footage of squad cars idling at the corner of Fuzzy and Blue, doesn’t it?
Trouble is, the 10 Code was always a frighteningly malleable shorthand. What one department used for ‘Suspected Jaywalker’ could mean ‘Escaped Ice-Pick Slayer’ one county over. That lack of universality can really raise a person’s pulse, whether they’re reaching for a loaded service pistol in a dark alley, or juggling a cheeseburger and a cheat sheet in a nearby drive-thru. On 9/11 this discrepancy became painfully amplified when neighboring police and fire agencies couldn’t understand each other’s codes, all that intentional obfuscation only adding to the tragedy. Couple that globe-changing day with the onslaught of quantum-leap communications technology and the 10-Codes do indeed seem as outdated as all those Adam-12 reruns.
Perhaps we should let the 10-Codes go. Hell, I never learned ‘em all anyway. Instead I've always used my amped-up auto-reflector as distant emotion detector. I still remember standing beside my tripod outside a freshly razed apartment complex a good ten years back, smoke and hoses everywhere . With my shots in the can I was debating whether to stick around for any sound, when I noticed a nearby fireman engaged in terse conversation with the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. Listening in, I kept hearing a single, repeated 10-code. I didn't know what it meant but could instantly tell from the way they grimly bandied it about that not everyone had made it out alive. 10-65, I think it was - or 10-42 maybe. Perhaps now I can stop pretending I know what a fellow photog is saying when he starts spitting out letter-number combos like a bingo-caller on Steroids. 10-4?