Emergency service response codes

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Emergency service response code systems vary from country to country, with different methods used to categorize responses to reported events.

United States[edit]

A Code 3 Response in the United States is used to describe a mode of response for an emergency vehicle responding to a call. It is commonly used to mean "use lights and siren".

In some agencies,[which?] Code 3 is also called a Hot Response. Code 1 is also called a Cold Response. In some individual departments they have their own response codes. Code 2 being lights and siren and code 3 would mean the same as code 2 but without lights and siren. An example of this would if a patrol car is close and does not want to alert anyone of their arriving.[1] [2][3][4]

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.

A similar variation is to "reduce" or "increase code." For example, if there is a code 3 response to a situation, but the first units on scene have sufficient control of the situation, they may announce over the radio that responding units may "reduce code." In this example, to "reduce code" would mean to continue responding, but at code 2, rather than discontinue altogether; to alert units to discontinue altogether—e.g., because the suspect is in custody or there are already enough police officers, also known as “e-r’s” on scene—they would likely say they are "code 4."

Some paramedic/emergency medical service (EMS) agencies use Priority terms:

Possible shift to plain language[edit]

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.[5] NIMS also strongly encourages the use of plain language for internal use within a single agency.

United Kingdom[edit]

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 (nonemergency calls). Grading is affected 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 equipment like blue lights and sirens.

There is no nationally agreed call grading system with a number of different systems being used across the UK and attendance times given the grade varies between forces, depending on how rural the county is. For example, Suffolk Constabulary break down Grade A emergencies into further sub-categories of Grade A Urban and Rural, with Urban attendance times attracting a 15-minute arrival time and Grade A Rural attendance would attract a 20-minute arrival time. Some of these are listed below but is not exhaustive.[6]

Grade Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment Target time
A Immediate response call Use advisable 8 minutes
B Significant call, routine call Can be used if driver thinks police are needed immediately 20 minutes
C extended call, Scheduled appointments Not to be used No time limit
D Non-attendance Not to be used Non-attendance
Resolved Non-attendance Not to be used Call is resolved at point of contact.

Another variant in use within the UK.

Grade Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment
IM Immediate Priority Normally used, examples of incidents graded as an immediate priority include incidents in which life is at risk, there is serious injury (or risk of), serious road traffic collisions, and where serious crime is in-progress or has just taken place.
H High Priority Normally used - incidents graded high are of serious nature and have the potential to develop into immediate priority incidents
N Normal Priority Not used - incidents are graded as normal that do not depend upon a timely police response.
L Low Priority Not used - incidents graded as low that do not depend upon a timely police response and may be resolved by phone or pre-arranged appointment.
NA Non-attendance Not used, no police attendance required.

A numerical grading system is used in some forces.[7][failed verification]

Grade (Status) Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment
State 1 Emergency response Road traffic exemptions usually utilised as is audible and visual warning equipment.
State 2 Urgent response Road traffic exemptions may be utilised along with audible and visual warning equipment.
State 3 Non-urgent response Audible and visual warning equipment is not used.
State 4 Appointments Audible and visual warning equipment is not used.
State 5 For information only Calls not usually requiring police attendance that may be logged for information only.
State 6 On Scene Officer On Scene of incident. Update information when necessary.

Ambulance responses in the UK are as follows. Some ambulance services allow driver discretion for Category 3/4 calls; this may be dependent on the type of call or how long it has been waiting for a response for. 999 calls to the ambulance service are triaged using either the NHS Pathways system or the Medical Priority Dispatch System.

Grade Meaning Audible and visible emergency equipment Type of call Initial response target Response details
Category 1 Immediate Life Threat Always used Cardiac arrests, Choking?, Unconscious, Continuous seizure, Not alert after a fall or trauma, Allergic reaction with breathing problems, Major Incidents 7 min Response time measured with arrival of first emergency responder

Will be attended by single responders and ambulance crews

Category 2 Emergency Always used Stroke patients, Fainting – not alert, Chest pain, Road Traffic Collisions, Major burns, Sepsis 18 min Response time measured with arrival of transporting vehicle
Category 3 Urgent Usually used (service policy dependent) Falls, Fainting – now alert, Diabetic problems, Isolated limb fractures, Abdominal pain 120 min Response time measured with arrival of transporting vehicle
Category 4 Less Urgent Not usually used Diarrhea, Vomiting, Non-traumatic back pain, Health Care Professional admission 180 min Maybe managed through hear and treat

Response time measured with arrival of transporting vehicle

GP Urgent Urgent response Not usually used GP urgent admissions to hospital. Urgent interhospital transfers 1–4 hours or scheduled timeframe, decided by admitting HCP


The use of flashing lights and sirens is colloquially known as blues and twos which refers to the blue lights and the two-tone siren once commonplace (although most sirens now use a range of tones). In the UK, only blue lights are used to denote emergency vehicles (although other colours may also be used as sidelights, stop indicators, etc.). A call-out requiring the use of lights and sirens is often colloquially known as a blue light run.


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.


Additional codes are used 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[edit]

Marine Rescue NSW

Code 1 Urgent Response - Use warning devices

Code 2 Semi Urgent Response - Use of Warning devices at skippers discretion

Code 3 Non Urgent Response - Warning Devices not needed

Code 4 Training - No Warning devices to be used unless specifically needed for training

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the New South Wales State Emergency Service use 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. Drivers are exempt from the road traffic act with some conditions,[10] however both organisations have policies imposing further restrictions. 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.

The New South Wales Police Force uses two distinct classifications for responding to incidents. In order to respond 'code red' a driver must be suitably trained and have qualified in appropriate police driver training courses.[11]

  • Code Red: Vehicle responding with lights and sirens activated.
  • Code Blue: Vehicle responding without lights or sirens activated.

South Australia[edit]

SA Ambulance Service use a Priority system.

Priority Case Type Lights & Sirens Used Crew Type
1 Emergency Yes Emergency (Paramedic or Intensive Care Paramedic)
2 Emergency Yes Emergency (Paramedic or Intensive Care Paramedic)
4 Urgent No Emergency (Paramedic or Intensive Care Paramedic)
5 Urgent No Emergency Support Service (Ambulance Officer)
6 Routine No Emergency (Paramedic or Intensive Care Paramedic)
7 Routine No Emergency Support Service (Ambulance Officer)
8 Routine No Patient Transport Service (Ambulance Officer)

Note: Priorities 0 and 3 have been reserved for future use. Priority 9 is used for administration taskings.

The South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, Country Fire Service and South Australian State Emergency Service use a Priority System which has been recently updated.

Priority Type Local Event Triage Lights & Sirens Used Response
1 Emergency Can't wait Yes Multiple Units Sent, Life-Threat
2 Urgent Can Wait No Single Unit Responded, Potential for Life-Threat
3 Routine Will Wait No Used Primarily by SES, No risk of Life Threat

All calls are routed through the Metropolitan Fire Service (Call Sign "Adelaide Fire") including State Emergency Service 132 500 calls.

During significant weather events the State Communication Centre (SCC) unit of the SES take over call taking responsibly. This operations centre is manned by volunteers routing calls for assistance to the closest unit who will dispatch the events to individual teams.


Queensland Police uses the priority system:

  • Code 1 - Immediate risk of death to a person. Proceed lights and sirens. Permission granted to disobey road rules.
  • Code 2 - Immediate risk of serious injury to a person or damage to property. Proceed lights and sirens. Permission granted to disobey road rules.
  • Code 3 - Routine job. Proceed without lights or siren. Road rules must be obeyed.
  • Code 4 - Negotiated response time. Proceed without lights or siren. Road rules must be obeyed.

For Queensland Police code 1 and code 2 are exactly the same response time. Rarely will a job be given a priority code 1, instead officers will (in most cases) be told to respond code 2.

Northern Territory[edit]

St John Ambulance Northern Territory uses terms to determine the response:[12]

  • 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 without lights and sirens
  • Non Emergency: Respond without lights and sirens

Western Australia[edit]

St John Ambulance Western Australia uses the following codes to determine a response:[13]

  • Priority 0 represents an Emergency call when there's an immediate threat to life, such as an incident requiring resuscitation.
  • 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. Use of lights authorised and siren allowed only when passing through heavy traffic and clearing intersections. (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) ..

The Western Australian Police uses the following codes from 1 to 7 to determine response actions:

  • Priority 1 is an emergency call. Lights and siren authorised. An example of a Priority 1 call would be an armed holdup call, or an officer down.
  • Priority 2 is a less urgent emergency call. Lights and siren authorised, but follow basic traffic rules. An example of a Priority 2 call is a serious shots fired or officer in trouble/officer requires urgent assistance
  • Priority 3 is an urgent call, lights and siren authorised, but follow basic traffic and road rules.
  • Priority 4 is a less urgent call. Lights and siren authorised but follow more advanced traffic rules and the speed limit.
  • Priority 5, 6, and 7 is a standard call. No lights or siren authorised and follow all traffic rules.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services have two response codes:[14]

  • Fire Call is the response that authorises lights and sirens, and disobeying road laws within reason. This is the response for most calls, including bushfires and road crashes.
  • Normal Road is the second response that requires the appliance to follow road regulations and not use emergency lights and siren. This code is rarely used for initial responders, but is given to further appliances if the incident doesn't require immediate assistance. This is also the only code that the State Emergency Services are authorised to respond with.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ San Francisco (CA) EMS Agency 0905 Policy Manual [1] Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Saratoga (NY) EMS Dispatch Changes [2]
  3. ^ Amherst (NY) Annual 2005 Memo [3]
  4. ^ Middletown (CT) EMD [4] Archived 2006-06-20 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ NIMS Integration Center. "NIMS AND USE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE". (2006). Accessed October 30, 2008.
  6. ^ Head of CCR (Norfolk); CCR Chief Inspector (Suffolk) (25 July 2016). "CCR Call Grading Policy" (PDF). Policy No. 81. Norfolk & Suffolk Constabulary. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  7. ^ "Scottish Policing Performance Framework". gov.scot. Scottish Government. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  8. ^ "NHS England » Ambulance Response Programme".
  9. ^ NHS England. "NHS England » New ambulance standards". Retrieved 5 September 2018.
  10. ^ NSW Road Rules 2014 Section 306
  11. ^ "Watch full episodes of TV shows for free on 10 play".
  12. ^ "St John Ambulance (NT) Inc - Home".
  13. ^ "Ambulance Service-Metro". Archived from the original on 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
  14. ^ "The one-stop shop for DFES information - WA Radio Scanner Users' Group".