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How to Use a Police Radio

Using a Police Radio

Parts of a Police Radio, Volume and power, transmit button, frequency selector and distress button

Using a police radio is mostly common sense but it takes time and lots of practice to learn the codes, protocols, etiquette and conduct. Much of this is outlined by specific police department policy and by the FCC. The best way to begin learning how to use a police radio is to monitor radio traffic. You can start by using a police scanner and listen to local police frequencies at your leisure to get an idea of the flow of radio traffic. This will get you acquainted to some extent. The problem with police scanners is that depending where you live certain departments use scramblers and other technology that makes it hard to monitor two-way radio traffic. Also, without a list of police 10 codes and police signal codes for particular departments there is only so much you can learn using a police scanner. A better way to monitor police radio traffic is by actually riding with a police officer. Many police departments have ride-along programs that allow you to actually sit through part of a police shift with an officer. During the ride-along you can ask the officer if they have a list of radio codes that you can study. This is sometimes called a police radio code cheat sheet or 10 Code cheat sheet. After several ride-alongs you are guaranteed to have a better understanding of radio codes, procedures and etiquette. Take good notes and practice what you learn.

Where are the Radios Located in a Police Department?

The Communications Center of a police department is sometimes referred to as a Control Center or Dispatch, and acts as a kind of switchboard or hub for all radio communication and emergency 911 telephone calls from citizens. Dispatch is the nucleus of any department and has their own base station radios. Someone in Dispatch or the Communications Center normally handles setting frequencies, radio repair, and issues radios to officers. Police patrol cars typically have their own built-in patrol car radios mounted to the vehicle. Police officers carry separate hand-held units that have the basic functionality that the patrol car radios have but are portable and lightweight like a walkie-talkie. The frequencies of all department radios are usually preset to a certain number of designated frequencies/channels. Radios are not issued to the general public unless special circumstances exist.

Parts of a Hand-Held Police Radio

Police Scanners

Don't be intimidated by all the buttons, dials, and switches that some more advanced-looking hand-held police radios have. Many features are not even used most of the time. Refer to Figure 1. What you will use most of the time will be the volume knob at the top of the unit that also acts as the power switch. If you've ever noticed police officers tend to spend a lot of time adjusting something on their radio while they are in a conversation with someone. Most of the time they are simply adjusting the volume knob. That's because officers don't want to broadcast messages coming from dispatch to every person standing in the vicinity--especially possible suspects. Also officers don't want to miss important incoming messages from dispatch if surrounding noises in the environment are drowning out the broadcast. If an officer cannot hear what's happening they cannot be effective in their job. So in this regard, the volume control is the most important part of a police radio and gets used the most. The second most important part of the police radio is also located at the top and is called the frequency selector. Generally there are just a few frequencies that get utilized. During a typical shift an average officer will only use 1-3 frequencies but will tend to remain on one main channel most of the time. Changing frequencies just takes a click or two and if you study the radio this can be done without even looking at it. You will notice that modern radios will have the volume and frequency controls designed with unique tactile characteristics so that you can feel your way to the right control without mixing them up. Also, the frequency selector has a slight amount of twist tension so it's easy to distinguish from the volume control in that way too. The third most important feature of the police radio is the transmit button normally located on the side of the radio. The transmit button is used to vocally communicate with dispatch or other officers through the microphone which is located near the speaker area. In most good radios the transmit button takes some firm pressure to activate. This helps prevent accidental keying of the Mic. To send a message you simply depress the transmit button for 1-2 second and then begin talking. The 1-2 seconds is necessary to offset delay so that the beginning of your spoken words are not cut-off. Last but not least is the red distress button that is an important officer safety feature of the hand-held radio. Even though it's seldom used, the distress button saves lives. When pressed and depending on how it's setup, the button can alert dispatch and send all units to the officer's location. It's sometimes referred to as the "Officer Down", "Send Help!" or "10-24" button. This button is easy to identify because it's red and located at the top of the radio. The button is concave so the user is less likely to accidentally press it.

Conduct and Basic Radio Etiquette

Police officers utilize radios to send and receive messages and vital information. Only essential information should be communicated. Transmissions should be brief yet descriptive enough for the receiver to fully understand. The best approach for transmitting a message is to plan the message before sending it. Always take a moment before transmitting to construct your message by briefly talking yourself through it--sort of like a short mental rehearsal. Using this approach will help you to transmit concise messages while conveying a professional image.

Instructions For Transmitting a Message

1. Plan your message beforehand. At least think it through one time. Messages should be brief yet contain important details.

2. Make sure the radio is clear before transmitting. You don't want to interrupt any ongoing radio traffic. You can do this by asking dispatch if the radio is clear. Press the transmit button and keep it pressed for 1-2 seconds before speaking. The 1-2 second rule is because some radios have a slight delay once you press the transmit button. You don't want to lose the first few words of your message.

Example: transmit button is pressed, one second...two seconds...,"Delta 39 to dispatch, radio clear?" Then release the transmit button.

You should receive a reply such as, "Go ahead Delta 39"

3. If the radio is clear, press the transmit button and keep it pressed for 1-2 seconds again before speaking. "Delta 39 to dispatch (then relay your message without letting off the transmit button until finished)"

It may seem repetitive at this point saying "Delta 39 to dispatch" once again after they have already acknowledged you, but this provides clarity to other officers in the field. This is also a good habit to develop for emergency situations when there tends to be a high volume of emergency radio traffic.

Keep messages short. Other officers depend on an open line of communication with dispatch in emergency situations. If you feel your message is too long, like longer than a few sentences, you can say "break" or "more to follow" and let off the transmission key. Then wait a moment to reestablish communication with dispatch.

4. End all messages by releasing the transmission button.

Use something like CLER (see figure 2) as a reminder of good verbal radio communication.


CLER is an acronym for Codes, Language, Emotion and Rate. It can be used as a reference for improving verbal radio communication.

Codes: Know your most important 10 codes and signal codes. Do this by testing yourself. Use index cards or take a series of written self-exams. Knowing your codes will give you confidence. You can always use a pocket cheat sheet to reference the more obscure or less-used codes.

Language: Pronounce words correctly. Make sure your words are plain language (English) so they are easily understood. If English is your second language, be careful not to revert to your native language in stressful situations.

Emotion: Do not display emotion, sarcasm, or humor on the radio. Practice at using an evenly modulated tone of voice. Try not to let your voice become distorted like high pitched, cracking, etc. due to adrenaline in an emergency situation. It's understandable that it will happen even to seasoned officers. Just work toward improving this as you experience new situations.

Rate: This is the rate of speed for spoken words. Are you talking too slow or too fast ?

Example of Police Radio Communication

In the example below you are Unit C101 and your call sign is phonetic Charlie 101. For this police department their dispatch is referred to as "COM". You have just observed a car accident and another patrol car, Charlie 102, also sees what has happened.

[OFFICER] "Charlie 101 to COM." (pause)

You begin a message with your call sign followed by the intended receiver's call sign and then pause for their response. If you suspect there is other ongoing radio traffic it never hurts to ask dispatch if the radio is clear, e.g. "Charlie 101 to COM, radio clear?"

[DISPATCH] "Go ahead Charlie 101"

[OFFICER] "COM, show me 10-97 for a Signal 4 on Brand St. and Russel Ave. Charlie 102 just arrived as well."

You generally do not need to repeat your call sign again unless there is extensive radio traffic or a long pause in communication.

[DISPATCH] "10-4, 101 do you require any additional units?"

[OFFICER] "COM, that's negative. There does not appear to be any injuries. Charlie 102 is here."

[DISPATCH]"10-4, I'll change your status to 10-97 with Charlie 102."

Dispatch concludes the transmission and indicates the officer will be busy on-scene.

Note: It's also a good idea to immediately call-in tag, make and model of vehicles. In the example we assume the officers are at the initial stage of assessing the scene for potential life-threatening injuries and the extent of damage. The officer should once again initiate communication with dispatch to provide more specific details for safety reasons and advise if other units are required for traffic control.

Public Monitoring

There is no privacy in police radio communications. A certain level of transparency comes with the job of being a police officer. Officers should always remain cognizant of this fact and maintain the highest level of professionalism in all communication whether it's on the radio or other messaging systems. Along the same lines, you need to safeguard confidential information that could compromise more sensitive police operations by using frequencies or other means of communication designated for such use. Also, police officers may come across personal information related to complainants, victims or citizen information that may not be appropriate to broadcast over the radio. When in doubt ask your supervisor or refer to your department's policies and procedures.