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Northern Montana Health Care Rolls Out Plain Language Codes

Havre, Montana – Emergency Alert Codes; such as “Code Blue” or “Code Grey” have been used for many years in hospitals across the country to alert and direct staff in emergency situations. Northern Montana Health Care (NMHC) previously used colors to represent the codes. The reasons for these codes range from a possible fire to a violent or armed person. The intent in using a “Code” Is to not alarm any patients or visitors in the process.

The downfall to the color system of codes has been in the varying range of them. What one facility uses to describe a combative person might mean something entirely different in another facility. For example, in the active shooter situation at the West Anaheim Medical Center (WAMC) in 1999, a problem arose because there was no specific color code to represent an active shooter so they used their “Code Grey” which typically denotes a violent or combative person. Unfortunately the male employees at WAMC, who were used to responding with their presence in the code grey situation, actually ended up running towards the shooter and thus resulted in the death of two of them.

In an effort to reduce confusion over the codes and to unify them, hospitals are promoting the use of “Plain Language Codes”. These codes are not only easily understood, but can be adapted to any unusual situations. They provide clearer instructions to the listeners as to what they should do; and removes any confusion as to extent of the situation. In the case of the shootings at WAMC, they could have used the codes to state that there was an active shooter and went on to list what buildings to avoid.

“For many years it has been the belief that patients and visitors needed to be protected from these codes; so as not to cause panic or concern.” states Eric Koch, RN, VP of Patient Care Services at NMHC. “But in recent years studies have shown that people panic less and feel more composed when they are aware of the full situation, and are given instructions as to how to proceed.”

As part of the training in their Emergency Operations Plan all NMHC employees are being given an online course and subsequent testing on the codes and their meanings. The Plain Language Codes went into effect on January 1st.

“We truly feel there is no downside to rolling out these new codes.” Adds Mr. Koch. “Keeping our employees and our community safe are the bottom line in all that we do here at NMHC.”

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