Codes can Kill

For more than a decade now, the United States Department of Education, FEMA as well as many state departments of education, law enforcement and emergency management have been advising schools about the dangers of using codes such as “code yellow”, “code red”, “Mr. Smith and Wesson is in the Building” etc. to announce emergency protocols such as lockdowns.  This approach has proven to be dangerous because staff often get confused between the various codes even in schools that conduct monthly drills using codes.

During a recent school safety audit, we conducted approximately 200 crisis simulations with staff to measure how well staff could make decisions and communicate during life and death crisis situations.  This district uses color codes such as those described above and requires monthly emergency drills.  As we have seen with other school districts, school administrators as well as rank and file staff repeatedly became confused as to which code they should use when tasked with responding to video and scripted crisis scenarios.

It is important to remember how dire the consequences can be when a code is misunderstood.  For example, in this district, the confusion between a lockdown code and the code for severe weather sheltering could quickly result in a mass casualty event.

Though many schools still use this approach, we have seen a high fail rate during assessments as well as during actual emergency situations at schools.  We urge school officials to carefully reconsider this approach.  Please keep in mind that there is a dramatic difference between conducting a lockdown drill where a school administrator knows in advance that they will be conducting the drill and school employees facing a specific situation, making fast decisions and communicating with other staff.   

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.