Hospitals often use code names to alert staff to an emergency. Code blue means a medical emergency. Code red means fire or smoke. Code black typically means there is a bomb threat.

Hospitals are the most common institutions that use color codes to designate emergencies. Law enforcement agencies, schools, and other types of healthcare facilities (such as skilled nursing homes) may also use variations on these emergency codes.

Codes allow trained hospital personnel to respond quickly and appropriately to various events. The use of codes can also help prevent concern or panic by visitors and people being treated at the hospital.

These codes can be communicated through an intercom in the hospital or directly to staff using communication devices like pagers. The most common hospital codes are code blue, code red, and code black, though the use of these codes isn’t standardized in the United States.

Code blue is the most universally recognized emergency code. Code blue means there is a medical emergency occurring within the hospital.

Healthcare providers can choose to activate a code blue, typically by pushing an emergency alert button or dialing a specific phone number, if they feel the life of the person they are treating is in immediate danger. Many hospitals have a code blue team who will respond to the code blue within minutes. The team is comprised of:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • a respiratory therapist
  • a pharmacist

Common reasons for activating a code blue include:

Code red typically means there is a fire or smoke within the hospital. A code red may be activated if someone smells or sees smoke or flames.

Code black most often indicates a bomb threat. Code black may be activated if there has been a threat made to the facility from an internal or external source, or if staff or law enforcement officials have identified a possible bomb in or near the facility.

There are a number of other codes hospitals may use to indicate emergency situations. These codes can vary more widely from facility to facility, so one color may have differing or conflicting meanings at different hospitals.

Some of the more widely used codes in hospitals include:

  • code pink: infant or child abduction
  • code orange: hazardous material or spill incident
  • code silver: active shooter
  • code violet: violent or combative individual
  • code yellow: disaster
  • code brown: severe weather
  • code white: evacuation
  • code green: emergency activation

Hospital emergency codes are extremely important to the safety of people inside a hospital. Hospital employees, including doctors, undergo extensive training to respond to each of these events, allowing them to save lives.

One of the primary benefits of a code system is that trained hospital employees know to respond to any given emergency without alarming those being treated and hospital visitors. Panicked bystanders can hinder the response efforts of emergency responders.

One of the primary problems of the hospital code system, and emergency response organizations in general, is a lack of national standardization. Some emergency codes, such as code blue and code red, are fairly universal across the United States and around the world.

But many of the other codes aren’t consistent. Each color can have various meanings across different states or countries. Some facilities use numbered code systems rather than colors. Each hospital or hospital association is responsible for developing its own emergency codes. There is overlap between hospitals and a great deal of variance, which can cause confusion.

Some countries, such as England and Canada, use a nationally standardized set of emergency hospital codes. This means that every hospital uses the same communication terminology to communicate during an emergency situation.

Emergency codes are extremely important for the safety of everyone inside a hospital. They allow doctors and administrative employees to respond quickly and effectively to save lives in emergency situations. Code standardization could provide consistent responses across all hospitals in the United States and allow healthcare providers to more easily transition between facilities.

Many states and large hospital associations are spearheading improvement projects to increase standardization of emergency communication at hospitals. The safety of people being treated and staff preparedness could be improved by a more consistent system of emergency notifications.

Many hospitals in the United States are transitioning from the color code system to a plain-language notification system. For example, under the new communication policies, instead of announcing “code red, first floor, main lobby,” staff announce “fire, first floor, main lobby.”

Many hospital administrators are advocates of the plain-language system. It could simplify emergency notifications and decrease confusion among staff, particularly employees who work at several hospitals. There is also some thought that it would be beneficial for those being treated to be aware of an emergency state so that they can respond appropriately.

Plain-language alerts are still used less frequently than color codes, but many hospitals may be moving in this direction soon in their efforts to increase public safety.