Emergency phones called into question

The College is surrounded by Ewing and Trenton, two municipalities whose safety records can cause concern for some students. But students do not let this stop them from traveling campus by night.

“I feel extremely safe walking around at night, and I’ve never had an issue with coming home late from the library, meetings or anything of the sort,” said Catherine Tung, a freshman political science major.

Blue lights on campus aim to provide a safer college. (Tom Kozlowski / Opinions Editor)

What many students forget, though, is the presence of the College’s blue light emergency phone system. In daylight, they appear as nothing more significant than faux telephone poles with blue beacons on top, mini lighthouses on forlorn pathways. Passing students may notice the red button glaring in the middle, yet never consider having need to press it. But, at all times, they are operational safety resources. The question, then, is how safe do they actually make the campus.

Blue light emergency phones have been prolific on college campuses for over two decades. The College installed them before 1993 and over the years have added to the number of phone locations around campus. They can be found, for example, outside all residence halls, near parking decks around campus and on various sidewalks, such as the path running between Bliss Hall and the Social Sciences Building.

All a student in hypothetical danger needs to do is press the red button and speak into the microphone; campus police will immediately be phoned and a trained 24/7 Public Safety operator will be at one’s disposal. From here, and depending on one’s location, campus police may arrive in a matter of minutes. Students can also call for police escorts when feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, earning a campus walking companion at any time or place.

How students apply the emergency phones, however, has had less to do with real emergencies. 2012’s statistics reflected hardly any egregious instances that put students in danger: out of the 57 calls put through to campus police, 46 were “accidental activations or hang-ups.” These could range from prank calls to a student’s childlike curiosity to press a bright red button.

Aside from this majority, eight calls were to report stuck elevators, one call for a noise complaint, one for missing car keys and another one for a misplaced computer.

Use of the phones is not the whole indicator of campus crime, though. The latest Campus Police Crime and Fire Security Report from 2011 reported six aggravated assaults, one sexual offense, six burglaries and four motor vehicle thefts, all located on campus. Although 2012’s campus crime figures have not gone public yet, it is obvious that more incidents occur than the emergency phones hear about.

More notably, public perception of the phones’ ability to prevent a present danger are mixed.

“Despite me feeling safe, if someone were to be chasing me, I wouldn’t stop, hit the blue button and wait to speak with Campus Police. The chances of me running away are exponentially higher than me turning to Campus Police for help,” Tung said.

Critics of the blue light system have noted that standing phones are outdated and costly in an era of cell phones and Twitter. The College lacks specific data on the telecommunications costs for the system, but continuous replacement of failed phones or burnt-out light bulbs contribute to the annual maintenance fees.

Many have also encouraged expanding the College’s cell service coverage so that students can individually respond from their own devices; as it stands, a lagging Verizon service pins down the ability to send and receive messages with haste. If the College were to shift costs from old emergency phones to improved Wi-Fi and cell coverage, many contend that students would actually be safer.

Although their deterrence of crime is disputed, emergency phones are still an asset to the administration. Safety and security reviews, which include the blue light systems, are conducted semi-annually and often recommend new locations and updated maintenance. Campus security has also been investigating projects to add emergency phones inside residence halls and develop cell phone apps to spread emergency information quicker.

“Safety and security of the campus community is a top priority of the College. Because these phones contribute to the safety of the campus, the investment is well worth the cost of operating and maintaining the system,” said Matthew Golden, associate vice president for communications.

No one hopes to find themselves threatened by unforeseen circumstances on a late night stroll home. If the situation were to ever arise, though, the Blue Light System remains active for their protection. These phones stand silent and quite forgotten on a daily walk to class, but behind each intercom sits an operator awaiting your call.

The above graph shows the usage of the blue light emergency phones in 2012. (Tom Kozlowski / Opinions Editor)