‘Inspector Sands, please report to the operations room immediately’ is an announcement that many commuters will have heard on the London Underground or on mainline railway stations. Inspector Sands is a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the UK to alert staff to an emergency, or to a potential emergency such as a fire alarm being operated or a suspect package, without alerting the public and creating panic. The actual phrase used may vary so as to direct staff to the location of the incident.
‘Mr Sands’ has long been used in theatres as a code for fire, where sand buckets were used to put out fires since the word ‘fire’ backstage or anywhere else would cause alarm to the performers and the audience. Indeed the phrase ‘it’s like shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ is a popular metaphor for a person recklessly causing unnecessary panic.
Apparently the alert usually means a fire alarm has been tripped and 90% of the time it’s a false alarm. The use of ‘Sands’ may arise from the sand from the fire buckets that would have been to put out fires. Less likely is the suggestion that it comes from the period of time that elapses between the staff investigating and resetting the fire alarm, as might be measured in a sand-timer, before the station’s systems automatically switch to a fail-safe evacuation mode.
Incidentally in theatres, Mr Gravel was the code name for a bomb alert. I wonder if this is true, and if so, why Mr Gravel?