Blue Lights On Campus are Security Theatre…And That’s Okay

Blue light emergency phones became mainstays on college campuses about thirty years ago. During freshman orientations nationwide, students are instructed to push the ‘call’ button on the always-lit LED blue towers when they feel unsafe, and campus police will respond through a speaker and arrive at the location. Some have speakers that can broadcast announcements, security cameras that capture video footage, and provide services like information requests, campus escorts late at night and car assistance.

While the ubiquity of cell phones has sparked a debate about the necessity of blue light phones, campus officials might consider the benefits of keeping highly visible phones in service for the purpose of marketing safety.

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Campuses that continue to pour money into maintenance and even expansion of blue light phones tout their legitimate value to campus security and their reliability over cell phones. In recent years, for example, University of North Carolina added them to new areas of campus as they grew, and campus police officials argue that their visibility and reliability enhance campus safety. People panic in an emergency and may not have the campus security number saved- even the three-digit 911 can be stressful to dial when panicking. Plus, cell phones can be left elsewhere and the battery can die. Blue light phones, on the other hand, don’t rely on batteries, can pinpoint locations accurately, and provide direct contact with emergency personnel on site. They also provide reliable communication when a high rate of traffic might overwhelm cellular networks.

On the flip side, those taking the route of mass removal cite the phones’ lack of use in actual emergencies and the more common use of cell phones. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for instance, received nearly 10,500 calls for service in 2013, but only 90 came from the emergency phones. On many campuses, prank calls are more common than legitimate ones, which divert resources from real emergencies. In addition, repair can be expensive, and many campus buildings already have phones that can automatically dial out 911. The University of California at Davis removed more than 100 outdated emergency phones in 2011 after installing a wireless 911 system on campus.

Some schools are taking a comprehensive approach and augmenting the blue light system with mobile security apps. Even campuses experiencing normal and routine malfunctions to the blue phone technology are introducing phone apps as a modern approach to campus security. University of Florida’s free Gatorsafe app can report tips to the UF Police Department, make emergency calls and perform other functions that improve their personal safety and security. Other schools are contracting with already established apps, such as Rave Guardian, which works with Brown University and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Earlier this year, University of Colorado Boulder entirely removed the remaining blue phones on its campus after introducing a contracted security app called LifeLine Response. University of Connecticut has developed an Alert system, which texts and emails participants. University of Southern California (USC) has created its own app called Trojan Mobile Safety which allows students to report a crime, call for assistance and tell people where they are on with the safewalk feature. The app is free to USC students and the school pays the licensing for the app.

Regardless of which side of the cell phone vs. blue light phone debate campuses fall on, all should consider the added benefit of marketing an image of safety on campus. Blue light phones are a beacon of safety, and removal might trigger negative reactions from community members. Students and parents appreciate the phone’s function as a visible deterrent that provides them with the peace of mind of knowing they are in a safe environment.

Some students at Westminster College in Salt Lake City report that they see the blue lights as a comforting sign on campus. When students at Southern Methodist University were questioned about their use of the blue emergency lights, all said they had never used them, but agreed that they provided peace of mind, especially when walking around late at night on campus. Diane Brown, the public information officer at University of Michigan, believes that their value, which can’t be calculated, lies in deterring crime.

Penn State Chief of Police Tyrone Parham said that even with the phones not being used often, there are no plans to get rid of the emergency phones, citing that he hears from parents, students and prospective students that they’re wanted. It’s almost an expectation for any campus to have them installed. Campus members want to ensure the community that they are working to keep students safe, and their presence can serve as a conversation starter for admissions to talk to prospective students about safety.

The most logical route is to keep the phones that are in highly visible areas, those whose value lies in the perception of security that they create despite their infrequent use.

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