If you travel by train a fair bit, you are going to get used to hearing the tannoy summoning Inspector Sands, and most of us know it’s some sort of code for a problem, but what sort of problem?

Typically, on the London Underground, you might hear a pre-recorded announcement saying “Would Inspector Sands, please report to the operations room”, it’s a fire alarm in the operations room – or wherever Inspector Sands is asked to go to.

Not an order to evacuate or anything like that — but a way of alerting station staff that a fire alarm has gone off and that it needs investigating. Probably just someone burning the toast again, but rather than defaulting to a full evacuation every time the alarm goes off, they check it first.

The message gives TfL staff an opportunity to investigate why the fire alarm is operating and is a safety mechanism that has been agreed with the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to avoid closing stations every time a false alarm sounds.

After a while, most Londoners get used to the code being issued, and presume nothing more of it. There was a suggestion a few years back that it had caused panic and was to be scrapped, but it hasn’t been, and your correspondent has heard tests of it in new Elizabeth line stations. Frankly, it’d take a lot more than a tannoy announcement to get most Londoners to even look up from their phone/newspaper, let alone panic about it.

If you’re wondering why it’s Inspector Sands instead of, for example, Inspector Jones — it’s thought to owe its origins to the theatres, where Mr Sands is used to indicate a fire backstage, and buckets of sand are quite effective at dealing with small fires.

Why sand? It’s less damaging than a fire extinguisher — which while very good at putting out small fires so they don’t spread, they also tend to cause a lot of water damage. A bucket of sand dumped on a small fire is less damaging to the immediate surrounding area.

And as the sand can be swept up afterwards, so long as it wasn’t used to put out oil fires, it’s even recyclable.

Apart from the London Underground, Inspector Sands also serves duty on Network Rail stations as well.

Away from Inspector Sands, there’s also Codes that get called out “Code 3 on Platform 4”, tells the cleaners that someone has been sick on the platform. And that’s more useful than you think as the cleaning team have different tools for the job depending on what’s happened, and traipsing to the end of the platform only to have to go back and get a different cleaning product would be a pain.

The codes you might hear include:

  • Code 1 – Blood
  • Code 2 – Urine/Faeces
  • Code 3 – Vomit
  • Code 4 – Spillage
  • Code 5 – Broken glass
  • Code 6 – Litter
  • Code 7 – Anything not fitting these categories

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  1. Brian Butterworth says:

    I must admit to a little excitement when I heard this go off at West Ham a few months ago. I think it was a system test version of it as it sounded at 10:00:00.

  2. N says:

    I get to hear it go often at 1am at Stratford Station, staff apparently unaware at how far sound travels outside the station…

  3. Ed says:

    They could introduce Inspector Gadget when someone reports a lost mobile phone.

  4. Andy T says:

    One for TfL Stations, an Inspector Downing when there’s a group of people drinking alcohol illegally?

  5. Jeremy Buck says:

    I have often been at a National Rail station at 1000 on a certain day which seems to be a standard time for testing the fire alarms.

  6. drhhmb says:

    When I was a lad 70 years ago there were buckets of both water and sand on the platforms at Hampstead Station.

  7. Jennifer Charles says:

    A similar system operates at the national stadium on Wembley, ‘paging mr green, would the stadium manager please report to the red zone’.

  8. Steve Howey says:

    Before relocating from the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, supporters of West Ham United, such as myself, were used to hearing “Mr Moon is in the building” followed some time later by “Mr Moon has left the building”, which raised a cheer. This was a similar alert announcement to Mr Sands.

  9. Jennifer says:

    How fabulously insightful! The codes are also rather interesting (and some gross – I’ll be listening out for them and ensuring I am very alert as to what I am walking on/near!).

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