Red Alert, Red Alert – You Need to Stop Using Code Words

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Nearly 20 years ago, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures gifted us the movie Monsters Inc. The 2001 computer-animated comedy featured two monsters employed at the city’s power company, Monsters Inc. The city generates power by scaring human children, however, the monsters of the film fear physical interaction with humans. In the clip below, we see what happens when a monster is ‘contaminated’ by humans. In this case, a monster unknowingly carried a human sock from the real world back into the factory.

How does this video relate to crisis management? Although a serious issue, this article isn’t about contamination hazards, or the crisis of shaving an entire monster’s body. Instead, let’s focus on two phrases heard in the first ten seconds of the clip: 2319 and Red Alert.

We refer to these as code words and they are frequently used in crisis situations shown in blockbuster hits and Hollywood productions. What does 2319 mean? Maybe it means contamination, maybe it means an all hands-on deck situation. What about Red Alert? We don’t know what the code words mean until after the scene is over, and even then, they’re still not clear.

Although the use of a code word may seem logical and a time-saver during a crisis, we do not recommend basing your organization’s crisis response plan from this scene in Monster’s Inc. Code words are standard for trained first responders, but your crisis response plan for your school or organization should not contain code words.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Code Words

When a crisis occurs, the first action we must take is alerting staff and visitors within the facility. This can be accomplished by using a PA system, airhorns, or verbal alerts. If using verbal alerts, do not use code words because people often forget the codes.

Schools and businesses frequently host visitors on their grounds. If an active shooter incident occurs and a code word is announced, for example, a visitor may not know what the emergency is, let alone how to respond. Do not complicate an already delicate and often stressful situation.

“Do not subscribe to the use of code words,” as recommended by Firestorm Chief Security Officer and former Secret Service, Jason Russell. “Subscribe to plain language responses. If you’re using any code words for your responses, I strongly suggest you eliminate those immediately.”

A crisis plan must make sense to every person who walks through the door, regardless of if they are a member of staff or a visitor. The last situation an organization or school wants to face is a crisis, but we cannot dismiss the fact that crises strike every type of organization. It’s not a matter of if, but rather when; and your facility and people must be prepared. We’re here to help before, during, and after a crisis.


Did you miss our most recent webinar, Why Would You Wait for the Weapon to Arrive? – Planning for and Responding to Violence? During the webinar, Jason Russell discusses how organizations can prevent, prepare, and respond to acts of violence. View the entire session via our YouTube Channel:

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