Public Safety & Homeland Security

Blue-Light Phones a Mainstay of Campus Security

North Carolina colleges are installing the phones in new areas of campus, and campus police officials say their visibility and reliability enhance safety.

by John Newsom, McClatchy News / March 25, 2014

Spend any time on a college campus, and you can't miss that emergency phone with the blue light on it.

These phones are built to withstand vandals, blackouts and bad weather.

There's one more hazard the blue-light emergency phones have managed to survive:

The cell phone.

Though nearly everyone carries mobile phones these days, the blue-light phones have managed to hang on. University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) are both adding them to new areas of campus as they grow, and campus police officials say their visibility and reliability enhance campus safety.

"They're a reliable form of communication, and we all know that cell phones don't always work," UNCG Police Maj. Paul Lester said. "You can always run to these phones and push the button and get the help you need."

But in the cell phone era, campus emergency phones don't get a lot of use. UNCG police got nearly 10,500 calls for service in 2013. But only 90 came from the emergency phones.

That campus has 130 emergency phones, including 78 in standalone blue-light towers. N.C. A&T has about 40 emergency phones. There are 281 emergency phones at UNC-Chapel Hill and another 400 at N.C. State, the state's largest university. GTCC has 25 blue-light phone towers.

The phones themselves cost about $500 each and can be hung on walls of dorms, academic buildings and parking decks. All of them have a button that connects a caller directly to campus police. Police say maintenance costs are minimal.

Some emergency phones hang from steel towers planted in parking lots, quads and other outdoor areas. They stand about 9 feet tall, cost about $2,000 and come in different colors — blue at UNCG and N.C. A&T, black at UNC-CH, white at N.C. State.

They're called blue-light phones because most are topped with a blue strobe light that goes off when someone uses it. Campus police officials say the light alerts passers-by of a potential problem and helps officers find a person calling for help.

Some campuses have given up on the phones. The University of California, Davis, removed more than 100 outdated emergency phones in 2011 after installing a wireless 911 system on campus.

But in 2012, Florida State University police credited a blue-light phone with helping officers catch a suspected rapist who attacked a student.

So why do the blue-light phones hang on?

—    They're reliable.

Cell phones run out of charge, get left in dorm rooms and can't always get a signal.

Police can't always pinpoint the location of someone calling from a mobile phone. Calling 911 sometimes connects to the local police, not campus police. And who can remember the seven-digit campus emergency number?

"During an emergency, the stress of it all can rattle folks so much that they aren't able to dial a three- or seven-digit number. Just being able to push one button helps with that," said Robin Hattersley Gray, editor of Campus Safety Magazine, which covers security issues at schools, colleges and hospitals.

"Also, cell networks tend to not work during large-scale disasters because everyone is calling their loved ones to check on them," she added. "The network gets clogged and calls don't go through."

—    They have handy special features.

Some of the newer models come with public address systems so police can make announcements in an emergency. Some police departments mount cameras atop the towers.

—    They're not mobile apps.

Some universities offer mobile applications that let cell phone users connect directly to campus police via text message or photo.

But a campus safety mobile app cost several dollars per student per year, and not all students download it.

"That's a significant check they're writing every semester for that app," said David Fleming, marketing and design director for Code Blue, a Michigan company that has made blue-light phones for the past 25 years.

GTCC plans to add three new blue-light towers to its Cameron Campus and three more to its aviation building near Piedmont Triad International Airport. Both facilities are scheduled to open later this year.

"Not everyone has a cell phone," GTCC Police Chief Dawn Tevepaugh said. "For us (the blue-light phones) are a much faster system to reach a real person."

(c)2014 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)