Emergency service response codes

Emergency service response codes

The emergency services in various countries use systems of response codes to categorize their responses to reported events. One of the best known is the Code 3 Response, which is used in several countries, particularly the United States, to describe a mode of response for an emergency vehicle responding to a call. It is commonly used to mean "use lights and siren."


Use of "Code 3"

Although the exact origin of Code 3 is not clearly known,[1] its use has spread across the United States and into parts of Canada.[2]

Code 3 was the title to a 1950s television police procedural intended to compete with Dragnet.

Response Codes

The most commonly used response codes are:

  • CODE 1: Non-emergency response. No lights or siren, following traffic laws.
  • CODE 2: Moderately fast. Lights and siren used for intersections and/or heavy traffic.
  • CODE 3: Emergency response. Lights and siren used. Fast response.
  • CODE 4: All clear or I am okay. Also used to tell another unit they can disregard.
  • CODE 5: Area under surveillance. All marked units stay out of area.
  • CODE 6: Calling for a cover unit(s).
  • CODE 7: Lunch break.
  • CODE 8: Confidential information.
  • CODE 9: All non-emergency traffic stay off the radio. A beep transmits over the air every couple of seconds.
  • CODE 0: Big emergency. All units in the area respond code 3 to the units' location.

Alternative Terminology

In some agencies, Code 3 is also called a Hot Response. Code 1 is also called a Cold Response.[3]

Some slang may be used, such as "Running Hot", or "Running Cold".

Some departments may use the terms upgrade, and downgrade as well. If a unit is responding to a call without lights or sirens (code 1), and the unit later needs to turn on lights and sirens (code 3), the term upgrade may be used. The term downgrade may be used in the opposite situation.

Some Paramedic/EMS agencies use Priority terms, which run in the opposite of code responses.

  • Priority 1 - Critical
  • Priority 2 - Emergency
  • Priority 3 - Non-Emergency

Other Countries

United Kingdom

The use of lights and sirens is up to the individual police officer driving to the call. The nature of the call is an aggravating factor when deciding when to use them. Calls are graded by either the control room direct (in the case of emergency calls) or by some sort of first contact centre (non emergency calls). Grading is effected by such factors as the use, or threat of violence at the incident being reported. Even though the grading is done by the control room, officers can request an incident be upgraded if they feel in their judgement they are needed immediately. They can also request to downgrade an incident if they feel they cannot justify using emergency warning equipment to get there. If a control room does not grade a call an emergency and refuse to upgrade it, the police responding to the call can still use emergency equipment if they deem it appropriate.


Grade Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment Target time
I Immediate response call Use advisable 11 minutes
S Significant call, routine call Can be used if driver thinks police are needed immediately 60 minutes
E extended call, Scheduled appointments Not to be used 48 hours

There is also a grading system related to new computer systems coming online with several police forces across the country:

Grade Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment
I Immediate response call Normally used
P Prompt response call (within 60 minutes) Use not advised except if responding officer deems the situation to require it (for example if there is a danger to life)
R Routine call Not used



Ambulance Victoria The information provided to Ambulance Victoria at the time of the triple zero call generates a case type and ambulance response code depending on the severity of the emergency.

There are three types of ambulance response:

Code 1: A time critical case with a lights and sirens ambulance response. An example is a cardiac arrest or serious traffic accident.

Code 2: An acute but non-time critical response. The ambulance does not use lights and sirens to respond. An example of this response code is a broken leg.

Code 3: A non-urgent routine case. These include cases such as a person with ongoing back pain but no recent injury.

Source: http://www.ambulance.vic.gov.au/Ambulance-Victoria/Operations/Response-Codes.html

Please note additional codes are used, but these are for internal purposes.

Country Fire Authority There are two types of response for the Country Fire Authority which cover the outer Melbourne Area. These are similar to those used by Ambulance Victoria, minus the use of Code 2.

Code 1: A time critical event with response requiring lights and siren. This usually is a known and going fire or a rescue incident.

Code 2: Unused within the Country Fire Authority

Code 3: Non-urgent event, such as a previously extinguished fire or community service cases (such as animal rescue or changing of smoke alarm batteries for the elderly).

New South Wales

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service uses two levels of response, depending on what the call-out is and what has been directed of the crew attending the incident by orders of the duty officer:

Proceed: To drive to an incident, without displaying lights and/or sirens and to obey all road rules.

Respond: To drive to an incident, urgently but safely, whilst displaying lights and/or sirens. Some exemptions exist for emergency drivers (for example: proceeding through a red light after stopping and when safe) though all road rules still must be obeyed. The siren can be switched off at the discretion of the driver when it is not needed (for example, when the road ahead is clear of traffic and easily visible) and reactivated at possible traffic hazards.

South Australia

The South Australian Ambulance Service use a category system.

Category A - Lights and Sirens, Life threatening respond within 7 minutes, patient not breathing, CPR in Progress or child under 6 years old, Two units to respond

Category B - Lights and Sirens, Life threatening respond within 15 minutes.

Category C - No lights and Sirens, respond within 60 minutes

Category 5 - Routine Transfer

Category 6 - Routine Transfer

The South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, Country Fire Service and South Australian State Emergency Service use a Priority System

Priority 1 (P1) - Immediate Life Threat - Lights and Sirens, usually multi-vehicle or multi-agency response

Priority 2 (P2) - Potential Life Threat - Lights and Sirens

Priority 3 (P3) - No Immediate Threat - No lights and sirens. Usually used for residential storm damage, Police support such as Search and Rescue or provide lighting.

Priority 4 (P4) - Routine Call


Queensland Police uses the priority system;
Code 1 - Life threatening, lights and sirens/no sirens (situation pending)
Code 2 - Serious or Time Critical (such as breakers on), lights and sirens
Code 3 - Proceed normal traffic conditions, no lights or sirens
Code 4 - Negotiate time to respond and attend (Rarely used)

Northern Territory

St John Ambulance Northern Territory uses terms to determine the response.[4]

Emergency or Non-Emergency. Emergency can be broken down into Life threatening or Non-life Threatening.
Emergency: Life Threatening - Respond lights and sirens
Emergency:Non-Life Threatening - Respond with out lights and sirens
Non Emergency: Respond with out lights and sirens

Western Australia

St John Ambulance Western Australia uses the following codes to determine a response.[5]

Priority 1 represents an Emergency call. (Response time target is to attend to 90% of emergency calls within 15 minutes)
Priority 2 represents an Urgent call. (Response time target is to attend to 90% of urgent calls within 25 minutes)
Priority 3 represents a Non-urgent call. (response time target is to attend to 90% of non-urgent calls within 60 minutes)

Possible shift to plain language

In the U.S. the National Incident Management System (NIMS) states "it is required that plain language be used for multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction and multi-discipline events, such as major disasters and exercises" and federal grants became contingent on this beginning fiscal year 2006.[6] NIMS also strongly encourages the use of plain language for internal use within a single agency.

See also


  1. ^ Starting 1971 Norfolk Police Department, implemented response codes. Code 1 was red lights and siren, Code 2 was red light only, and Code 3 was normal running, no lights or siren. This is still in effect today, with the only change from red lights to blue lights. These response codes are used by Norfolk Police, Fire and EMS units. Richard Herzing
    Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response
    Public Safety Communications
    Norfolk, Virginia
  2. ^ Areas using Code 3:
    Phoenix (AZ) Regional SOP 205.08 [1],
    Sierra-Sacramento Valley EMS Agency Program Policy reference no. 415 [2],
    Hennepin County (MN) EMS Ordinance #09 [3],
    Hawaii Police Department General Order 807 [4],
    The San Diego (CA) Paramedics [5],
    Killeen (TX) Police Jargon [6]
  3. ^ Sources:
    San Francisco (CA) EMS Agency 0905 Policy Manual [7],
    Saratoga (NY) EMS Dispatch Changes [8],
    Amherst (NY) Annual 2005 Memo [9],
    Middletown (CT) EMD [10].
  4. ^ http://www.stjohnnt.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94&Itemid=262
  5. ^ https://www.ambulance.net.au/content.asp?id=166
  6. ^ NIMS Integration Center. [http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nims/plain_lang.pdf (2006). "NIMS AND USE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE". Accessed 14 May 2008.

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