#students | #parents | Emergency Blue-Light Phones Are a Symbol of Safety. Is Symbolism Worth Thousands?

The fluorescent, candy-blue boxes and towering poles labeled “Emergency” in long black letters pepper almost every college campus. They’re a part of the campus landscape, as easy to overlook as cracks in the sidewalk. It’s hard to picture a college campus nearly 30 years ago, when the boxes didn’t exist.

In 1989 the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with many other universities, faced a renewed call to keep its students safe.

Two years later, the Clery Act, which requires that institutions make campus incident reports public, was signed into law after Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old student at Lehigh University, was raped and murdered on campus.

The Chicago university put out an all-call to inventors: Create something that will extend our safety network past our walls, and we’ll buy.

In January 1990, the university received the first prototype from a company that sold coin-operated newsstands. It was medium-sized call box with the iconic blue light on top. With the push of a red button, the caller would be connected in two-way communication with campus or city police. By midyear, more than 100 blue-light safety phones were installed on campus. The company behind the box, News-Time, branched off into Code Blue Corporation. It’s now the lead manufacturer for emergency phones, according to David Fleming, chief design officer for Code Blue.

Almost 30 years later, some universities are turning their lights out. Students now have cellphones, phones have emergency apps, and emergency phones aren’t used as frequently anymore.

Despite the obvious advances in communications technology, many institutions have kept their call boxes.

The devices are costly, though, and some argue that they’re becoming obsolete. Still, some experts and university officials say the light boxes give the campus the feeling of safety, a sentiment that is sometimes much more important than how often the boxes are actually used.

The University of Georgia removed its blue-light call boxes in 2004 because students were not using the phones for emergencies — but rather for pranks — according to The Red & Black. Since then, students have pushed the administration to bring back the emergency phones on a few occasions.

Kaley Lefevre, a senior at the University of Georgia, said this peace of mind is worth the money.

“When something bad happens, it sparks the conversation of bringing the blue lights back again, but then it dies out again,” Lefevre said. “I guess the university has made the decision that they don’t want to appropriate the funding to that. It hasn’t been talked about enough to elicit a response from the university.”

Cellphones are an improvement on the call boxes because they allow people to keep moving while on the phone with police, the UGA Police department said in 2015.

Fleming, of Code Blue, said no matter how far technology advances, the safety assurance the boxes can give the campus — or the idea that the phones are inanimate guards standing over students — keeps them relevant.

Eric Plummer, associate vice president of public safety at the University of North Dakota, said prospective parents and student who tour the campus appreciate seeing the emergency phones.

Expensive and Seldom Used

The University of Connecticut system still has about 330 phones, with about 275 at the Storrs flagship campus, according to Stephanie Reitz, a university spokeswoman.

The number of emergency calls from the blue-light phones has surely decreased at Connecticut, but the institution has no way of knowing how many were made from the blue-light phones because all 911 calls are funneled into the same line, said Andrew Fournier, deputy police chief. For Fournier, one call is worth keeping the phones running.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln removed all of its devices in 2017. The campus spent more than $1.7 million on installation and maintenance in the 15 years before removing almost all of the devices, The Daily Nebraskan reported.

But when students get to campus, they don’t typically pick up the stationary phone for help. For example, campus police at Ohio University do not remember the last time the phones were used in emergency situations, the campus newspaper, The Post, reported last year.

Pepper Spray and Personal Alarms

On another side of the debate, the University of Colorado at Boulder got rid of its emergency phones in 2015 but replaced them with the LifeLine app, free for students to put on their phones. More than 90 percent of the calls from the emergency phones were hang-ups or pranks, Melissa Zak, chief of police, wrote in a letter to students.

“That leaves just a handful of legitimate non-emergency calls for minor crimes, liquor law violations, facility maintenance, and open-door assistance,” Zak wrote.

At Indiana University at Bloomington, students have started taking security into their own hands even though 56 emergency phones are still available, according to the Indiana Daily Student. Some students use personal alarm systems and pepper spray for safety, the newspaper reports. Calls from the emergency phones are accidents 99 percent of the time, according to an Indiana police officer.

Still, some administrators feel that if a campus does not have the boxes, it’s missing something.

“One of the concerns is a lawsuit for a lack of security,” said Bob Mueck, director of public safety at St. John’s College, in Maryland. “Would that feed into that? Would there be more money paid on the other end if someone sued the institution?”

St. John’s College has only a handful of phones, and it will not consider adding any more because of budget constraints and the availability of other safety measures, like the LiveSafe app, Mueck said. The calls on the blue phones have drastically decreased, but the institution will keep the phones they have in working order.

Plummer, at North Dakota, compared the phones to fire extinguishers: You don’t need them till you need them.

Follow Lily Jackson on Twitter at @lilygjack, or email her at lily.jackson@chronicle.com.

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