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Should College Campuses Continue to Deploy Blue-Light Phones? (Opinion)

For 20 years, college and university campuses have relied on blue-light call boxes to provide remote locations with access to police dispatch.

em_UC Davis Campus
Photo courtesy of UC Davis
UC Davis
When I think about safety on college or university campuses, blue-light phones — those iconic, stand-alone towers with a blue light on the top — aren’t the first thing that jumps to mind.

A college or university campus has different safety concerns than an elementary or secondary school, one being remote locations where students might need help, like parking lots or deserted quads. The 20-year-old solution has been remote blue-light call boxes with direct access to police dispatch.

Given all that, and with the proliferation of cell phones and wireless 911 service, how necessary are the blue-light phones?

Certainly today’s units can offer more than just a blue light and direct access to police dispatch. They can be purchased or retrofitted with cameras, sirens and loudspeakers. Emergency messages can be micro-broadcast to anyone standing in a limited radius. The cameras can watch — like Big Brother — innocent and nefarious activity.

But do they really create a safer campus? I posed this question to other college and university emergency managers. I received lots of comments and positions, but only one affirmative answer: a reply from one campus describing a call from a student who’d just been robbed. By promptly describing the perpetrator, that person was picked up a short time later.

There are some reasons a campus might want to keep blue-light phones, such as failed 911 service or geography that causes spotty wireless coverage. They also might offer some redundancy if cellular service fails, although most new units depend on radio reception of some sort.

Even so, we should be looking to the future. New technology will resolve reception and delivery problems. Like it or not, communication is moving inexorably into the wireless realm.

There aren’t too many college students who don’t have a cell phone, and most of them use cell phones constantly to communicate with their friends. The Virginia Tech shootings and Hurricane Katrina showed how effectively students can receive and distribute emergency information via text messaging and Twitter. Twitter is the grapevine of choice for college students, and even for those of us in the “older” generation. The service relays more information faster than any other medium.

Whether blue-light phones are expendable is still debatable on most campuses. The major argument for keeping them is that parents and students want them. Some campuses believe the units’ visibility adds value to the perception of security, or that they play a role in application decisions, or that repurposing them with cameras and speakers extends their security presence.

The fact is, they’re rarely used — and when they are, it’s not for emergencies. For example, they’re used for nonemergency road service requests, like flat tires or a jump-start. More often, they’re intentionally activated as a prank, which diverts resources from real emergency calls. They have other drawbacks: The lights offer a false sense of security — the perception of safety — and they are expensive to install and maintain. Laws or codes don’t require the lights: there are no standards to govern what they look like or where they’re placed.

The bottom line is the question of the lights’ return on investment. Where else could our shrinking security dollars be used? More officers? A better emergency notification system? Buying cell phones for students who don’t have one? Campus budgets are being slashed and serious decisions are at hand. We don’t want to cut security services any more than we want to cut anything else, but we must make choices.

I’m a parent. I have a daughter in college. I’d vote to take the blue-light phones out and apply that money against the next tuition hike.

Valerie Lucus is the emergency and business continuity manager at the University of California, Davis. She also writes the Campus Emergency Management blog at

[Photo courtesy of the University of California, Davis.]


Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.