Police Call Signs: How To Use Them In Your Fiction Writing

police-call-signsChrys Fey, my guest today, certainly did her homework when she decided to use police call signs in her latest novel, 30 Seconds to Die.

When writers research, their stories ring more true-to-life. I’ve built this blog with this notion in mind…to help save you time, and Chrys certainly delivers with this post.

We’ve kept it short in order to include a YouTube video (excellent resource, by the way) of Cleveland dispatch when they found three women–Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knightheld captive in a cellar for over ten years. The video is quite chilling when you consider what the victims experienced at the hands of a madman, but it also makes a perfect case study in police call signs.

Welcome to Murder Blog, Chrys!

Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Sue! I am thrilled to be here and to share a post about police call signs with your audience. I hope everyone finds it interesting.

What are Police Call Signs?

A call sign is how a police officer is identified while they are patrolling the streets in their cars and reporting to crime scenes. Whenever they talk to dispatch, they will state their call sign.

While researching call signs for 30 Seconds Before, I found that they are different from state to state, city to city, department to department. This made it difficult to figure out an accurate call sign for my character.

Sometimes you’ll see 4-character call signs. For example, Charlie-211. Police call signs

The first letter “C” is for the district location, the second character is for the type of unit, and the last two are a unit identifier. Other times, you’ll see a call sign like 3-Adam-2, which is for an officer on day-shift 3 for beat 2 in sector A (Adam). But from agency to agency, the numbers and letters can stand for various things. And, of course, the beats and sectors are in different places. (Note from Sue: If you use police call signs, research which ones are used in your area.)

Different Countries, Different Call Signs

In Australia, a call sign could be ##-PS-1A. The first two numbers (##) would stand for the specific station. PS in this call sign means “patrol sergeant.” The 1 at the end is a designator in case there are multiple units on duty, and the A represents the shift. And yet, this isn’t the same format used across Australia.

How did I figure out how to create a call sign for my story?

First, I had to find out what the sectors in Cleveland are and what format the officers used for their call signs. To figure this out, there was a lot of hair pulling, aggravation, and research. I looked at the Cleveland Police Department websites and maps to determine the sectors. The hard part was learning what the call signs meant.

During my research, I uncovered a video on YouTube of a dispatch recording depicting the moment when the police rescued three women from Ariel Castro’s home. Listening to the recording, I learned that the Cleveland police officer identified himself as Adam-23 (later as 2-Adam-23).

I knew if I stuck close to that, it’d be pretty accurate, especially since it was the correct location for my story. I didn’t want to alter the call sign too much, fearing I’d get it wrong, but I also didn’t want to use the same call sign Officer Anthony Espada and his partner, Michael Tracy, used.

With over tens of thousands of officers in America, and each one with a different call sign, it’s nearly impossible to create one that’s not already in use. The one I picked, no doubt, is assigned, but it is used factitiously in 30 Seconds Before.

So what’s my character’s call sign?



chrys-feyChrys Fey is the author of the Disaster Crimes Series (Hurricane Crimes and Seismic Crimes), as well as these releases from The Wild Rose Press: 30 Seconds, Ghost of Death, and Witch of Death. She is an administrator for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group and heads their monthly newsletter. She’s also an editor for Dancing Lemur Press. 30 Seconds Before can be found on Amazon.

Find out more about Chrys and her books at www.ChrysFey.com.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine published her flash fiction and her short stories are published in numerous anthologies and collections. InSinC Quarterly featured her forensic articles about Radiocarbon Dating and Skeletal Differences. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday.


  1. Sue and Chrys – great post! Lots of useful stuff in the comments, too!

    I know one county in SE Ohio uses the deputy’s badge number as their callsign. The badge number is their month and year of hire. My chief was a former deputy in that county, so used the same format for our college department. Mine was 292.

    Local PD was very small and only had 6 cars working at any one time. 100 was always the shift sergeant. 101-104 were the 4 zone cars. 105 was across the river in a small town in WV that my hometown PD dispatched for.

    I can also recommend using an app like Scanner Radio by Gordon Edwards. That will let you listen to radio feeds from police departments all over the country. People with scanners will set it up so the audio is streamed live over Broadcastify, and the app picks up those feeds and can localize them for you. Much cheaper and easier than buying your own scanner!

    Also, RadioReference.com has a tremendous database of radio frequencies that you can learn a lot from. Here’s the list of frequencies and users for the Greater Cleveland Radio Communications Network, which includes Cleveland PD: http://www.radioreference.com/apps/db/?sid=7337

    Great post!

    • Hi, Bob!
      Fantastic addition to the post. Thank you.

      Funny you should mention Scanner Radio. I just downloaded the app last week. Haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but at least now I know it’ll be as helpful as it looks. I didn’t realize you were on the job, Bob. We should talk. I’d love to have you on the blog sometime.

      Wow. I’ll be checking out radioreference.com today to see if they include my area (New Hampshire). Thanks again!

  2. Thank you for this post, Sue and Chrys. A great reference for those of us newbies in crime writing. I can identify a bit with one of the previous comments (SK) – nurses love to eat their young. I’m working on expanding a short story into a novel based on a nurse. She is not sweet and caring. She’s competent, smart, and in control and she also murders her husband. This post is a keeper. Thanks

    • Hahahahaha! Love that last line, Sheila: “She’s competent, smart, and in control and she also murders her husband.” Too funny!!!

      So glad you enjoyed the post. 😉

  3. Thank you for this post, Sue! A great reference for those of us beginning in crime writing. I can identify a bit with one of the previous comments (SK) – nurses love to eat their young. I’m working on expanding a short story into a novel based on a nurse. She is not sweet and caring. She’s competent, smart, and in control and she also murders her husband. This post is a keeper. Thanks

    • Oh, so sorry you had trouble posting a comment, Sheila. I’ve been stuck in my writer’s cave and only now came out for air. I didn’t delete this duplicate because since I approved both comments, future comments from you won’t have to be moderated. They’ll just post right to the blog. Happy writing!!!

  4. I’ve never enjoyed police procedural books. Too much unknown for me to even decide on authenticity, but I can appreciate those who do preferring to have it. I read some of the most ridiculous info about hospitals and nursing practice in books. Having worked in the field for thirty-five years in everything from E.R. and Critical Care to Psychiatry and forensics, I am appalled at how unprofessional nurses are portrayed in books. However, by the same token, one of the reasons I got out of nursing and started writing was due to the lack of professionalism of the group of nurses I was working with at the time I retired. So I guess things, they are a changin’. As always, I appreciate your work here so much I have a whole file labeled, “Sue’s Stuff”, that I reference all the time. Thank you.

  5. Thank you both for shedding some light into this fascinating subject!

  6. Yikes! I almost forgot my comment to you Sue. Thank you so much for having me on your blog! I am truly enjoying the conversation here. You have a wonderful community. 🙂

    • LOL No worries, Chrys. Truly.

      I’m so glad you’re having fun! I have THE BEST community, don’t I? I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such awesome, informative, talented peeps. It’s a pleasure to have you join us.

  7. Great subject for crime writers, Crys & Sue. It’s little details like correct radio procedure and call signs that can keep a reader in the story if correct or “unsuspend the disbelief” if wrong.

    I’ve worked with a number of jurisdictions and every one seems to be a little different in radio protocol – even the 10-codes vary to some degree. The best radio communication is to keep it simple (KISS) so it’s clear and memorable.

    The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, where I’m from, uses a three-part open radio identifier – Numeric/Phonetic/Numeric – where it calls – Jurisdiction/Specialty/Unit. For example, it would go:

    20Delta4 – Nanaimo City/Detective/Unit#4 (unit being whichever officers were assigned to that car on that shift)
    31Charlie10 – Burnaby/Traffic/Unit#10
    19Foxtrot3 – Victoria/Forensics/Unit#3
    40Golf1 – Vancouver Island/Marine/Boat#1
    Air1/Air2/Air3 – Helicopters 1,2 & 3

    This is for what’s known as open-mic radio which can be scanned by the public. Closed-mic call signs, which are encrypted, are a bit more personal as they’re talking between themselves and more familiar with each other. A surveillance unit would be:

    Oscar1, Oscar2, Oscar3, etc depending on how many on the surveillance team.

    SWAT or ERT is a whole different game and needs to be very short and personal due to how fast things can happen and the need to be brief and absolutely clear. So the tactical teams (up here anyway) adopt a fighter-pilot approach where each team member earns a call sign peculiar to them and it sticks with them for good – even at social events 🙂 Here was my bunch of bandits:

    Bude, Alfred, Tubbs, Mother, Sonny, Ozzie, Shambo, Taz, Cro-Magnon Man (Cro for short), and BossHogg.

    One thing for sure, we never mixed up a call sign 🙂

    • Hi Garry! Thank you for your comment and for telling us about the radio identifiers for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Whenever someone wants to write about the police force, it’s so important to do research, because codes and call signs differ every which way you go. That’s why it’s also hard to figure out what the police in each area use. Talking to someone in the field in that specific area is a great thing to do, if possible.

      Thanks for sharing the names for the tactical team members you worked with. I feel like writing a story about SWAT just so I can create some clever, short call signs. 😉

      • Hi Crys – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer contacting the police jurisdiction they’re portraying and asking them questions like radio procedure or whatever. Most larger departments have a dedicated PR department and I think they’d be very willing to help. Obviously they’re not going to disclose classified stuff but clarifying day-to-day procedure would be good for their image, too – and don’t forget to give them credits in the book 🙂 The old story… never be afraid to ask… Right, Sue?

        • Exactly right, Garry. Course, you knew that. 😉 In fact, I just received two sweet emails from NH Fish & Game and the state police LT who thanked me for contacting them in order to realistically portray their jobs. The best part is, they both want to read MARRED. I’ll be sending them free copies for their help. 😉 It’s the least I could do for holding them up forever with all my questions.

          • Of course! Contacting the police jurisdiction is a great thing to do, which is why I mentioned it. 😉 Most professionals are happy to help. And their expertise will make your story better.

    • Wow, Garry! As always, thank you for your contribution. Your get-togethers must be a blast! Are the “bandits” similar to their names? Or is it a “curly” thing for the bald guy and “Tubbs” for the skinny dude? LOL

      • The names came from all over the place. Cro-Magnon Man was the most fitting. Cro is 6’5 and about 280 – solid muscle. We were going to get Cro some cosmetic surgery to reduce his brow because the overhang was affecting his sight. 🙂

        Mother and Sonny were roommates and clean-freaks. Alfred lost a bet over “she who’s name shall not be mentioned”. Shambo fought a serious, serial snacking problem. Ozzie was an Aussie import and crazy like one – impossible to understand when he got drunk or excited. Taz was totally OCD/Hyperactive. Bude’s original handle was “Mongo” (from Blazing Saddles cause he was built like Mongo- not dumb like Mongo) but we went back to the shortened version of his Czechoslovakian surname. Tubbs was another big boy – he was our door kicker and his offspring is now an NFL lineman at 6-11 and 345. Our hard-entry tactic was Tubbs would smash the door with a battering ram or his shoulder while Sonny and Mother would flash-bang it. Then Cro would pick up Ozzie by the top of the tac-vest and down at the belt and just run him right in while Ozzie worked an MP-5 in front of the entry team.

        And BossHogg – well, there was no doubt who the team leader was. BossHogg was definitely in charge, always scheming!

        Hope this little insight gives writers a glimpse into making their characters… characters.

  8. This is so helpful! Thank you very much, both. It’s always so useful to know what real-life police do in different situations, and how they communicate. And there’s nothing like the sense of authenticity you can get if you can add those realistic details.

  9. This is a great post, and timely for me. I may have to use some of this and some 10 codes in the next one I have planned.

    • Hi, Craig! I’m glad that this is a timely post for you. I hope you can figure out the call signs and 10 codes you’ll need for your story. They sure can be tricky. If you have a way to ask someone in the field, that’s a smart way to go. Good luck with your next project! 🙂

      • I’m in a different position than most of Sue’s friends, because I write speculative fiction. The next one will be science fiction. I have some latitiude to make it up, but want to be believably close.
        Craig recently posted…The Paranormal Bar and Grill – Will O’ the WispMy Profile

        • I don’t write science fiction, but I do have fantasy projects. Science fiction is great, though, because you have some creative freedom and can write about stuff that’s “out there,” but also scientifically possible, even in the crime division.

    • Really, Craig? I’m intrigued. 10-codes are tough, too, because every state is different. I try to limit my radio talk so I don’t confuse out-of-state readers who work in law enforcement, but I had no choice but to include them here and there in my latest, CLEAVED.

  10. I never really stopped to think about call signs before but it makes sense there would be district/regional codes involved. Kudos to Chrys Fey for doing such extensive research for authenticity and for sharing.

    • Hi, Mae! I hadn’t thought about it either. After watching TV shows and movies, which usually aren’t that accurate, I thought call signs were the same. Once I started to do research, I realized that was far from the case.

      Thank you!

    • They’re definitely a slippery slope, depending on your audience. I know some cops who get aggravated when they see them in a book and others who enjoy the authenticity. Add this to our never-ending list of fine lines for crime writers to walk. 😀

      • While doing my research, I actually read a rant from a cop when a writer asked him a question about call signs. He wasn’t happy that a writer was asking him a question for a book. *sigh* A fine line, indeed.

        • Really? I haven’t experienced that, yet. Course, I have “my crew” who I drilled for answers. Chrys, have you seen our #ACrimeChat on Twitter yet? I founded the chat as a way for writers to have access to detectives, captains, coroners, firearm experts, profilers…the list goes on. We meet every other Wed. from 3-4 p.m. Eastern. We had this week off, so next Wed. we’ll be there. If you’re ever unsure, just check the hashtag. I usually tweet if it’s week on or off.

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