Wait -- is Code Yellow a shooter or a bus problem?

“Attention, Code Yellow.” The voice crackles over the intercom, stopping everyone in their tracks. Can’t quite remember -- isn’t Code Yellow a problem in the bus drop-off area? Or is that when we summon the imaginary “Ms. Smithers” to the office? Or isn’t that a Signal Three?

Anyone who’s watched a spy movie or one of those films showing the behind-the-scenes operations in the Pentagon has heard all sorts of interesting code words. “The President has ordered everyone to Defcon-Two, so we need to implement Code Green.” It’s pretty cool to know all those secret codes are in use, making sure people who shouldn’t have access to information won’t know what’s happening.

Schools and other facilities often adopt similar secret codes. The justification is usually that only the people who are required to take action (such as teachers or department managers) will know what’s happening, so other occupants of the facility (such as students or employees) won’t panic.

The intent may seem reasonable, but there’s an inherent problem with codes: people forget them. When they hear the code words, they may not remember what they’re supposed to mean. And if they’re the person in a crisis situation, they might not have the presence of mind to call for a Code Yellow, a Code Red, or a Code Fuchsia. Instead, they’ll panic or freeze.

We live in a different world than we did 10 or 20 years ago. Media coverage of mass shootings, school violence, and terrorist acts have sharpened awareness. That’s true even among young students. Even if they haven’t seen the news stories, they’ve heard their parents and classmates discuss shootings and other acts. Today’s students are every bit as uneasy about the potential for an incident as their grandparents were when they were practicing duck-and-cover drills.

Preparing to deal with dangerous incidents is serious business. Playing around with code words and similar strategies can compound the danger by creating confusion. It’s far better to use plain English and state exactly what you want people to do. If your school needs to be locked down because of a potential threat, saying “Lockdown now” over the intercom will stir people into action far more effectively than asking “Ms. Smithers” to visit the office.

There’s a part of our brains that’s sometimes derided as “reptilian.” It’s the area of the brain that makes instinctive responses to situations. If we see an object flying toward our heads, we duck. If our feet slip, we automatically reach out for something that will allow us to steady ourselves. As intelligent, rational animals, we’re a bit ashamed of our reptilian reactions, but they’re what keep us alive. When we see a shooter entering a building, we don’t have the luxury of carefully analyzing the situation and considering alternatives. We need to get to safety immediately.

“Code Yellow” doesn’t kick the reptilian brain into action, but “Shooter! Take cover!” will. If we want people to evacuate a burning building, we yell “Fire! Get out!” for a reason. Everyone knows what that means and what they’re supposed to do.

 In addition to using plain English, it’s important to make sure that everyone who can call an alert uses the same words. If one administrator says “Lockdown now!” and another says something about taking cover, they may not get the same response. That’s why many schools use common language such as the Standard Response Protocol [http://iloveuguys.org/srp.html] to notify occupants about emergencies. They also regularly practice the actions occupants are supposed to take when they hear those words. For example, lockdowns are triggered by the phrase “Lockdown! Locks, Lights, Out of Sight.” Even the youngest students can easily memorize that phrase, so they know exactly what to do to protect themselves.

If you’re responsible for occupants in multiple buildings, such as a school district with multiple schools, it’s a good idea to use the same protocol in every building. That way, if staff members are working in a different building, or if students move from an elementary to a middle school, they’ll automatically know how to react.

Standard protocols may not be as much fun as code words, but in a real-life emergency, they make a tremendous difference in protecting everyone’s safety.