New To Emergency

Students, faculty offer words of support for lighted towers

A year ago—new to the industry and lacking any special knowledge associated with campus safety or general security—I started working at an Illinoisbased emergency communication company. Prior to my employment, the closest I came to a blue light emergency phone was walking into one on my way to class during my second semester of college. Like all my friends, I never paid attention to the blue lights brightening up the stairwells and walkways throughout campus. I looked at them as a novelty, a toy. People put stickers on the buttons and scratched profanity into the paint. I had not heard of a student or faculty member using an emergency phone. At the time, it was hard for me to see them as a helpful tool for the campus community.

An Insider’s View

A few weeks into my new job, I was tasked with traveling across the country to interview chiefs of police, students, faculty and anyone associated with our emergency phones on college, medical and parking campuses. Immediately, I started thinking of what questions to ask during the interviews, but it took me less than a minute to realize that I had no idea what to ask.

I knew I had to find out my interviewee’s name and involvement with the projects, but what else? I finally realized that I needed to ask them questions that I would ask myself—I needed to find out their honest opinion about the product.

Being the staunch “know-it-all” that I am, I figured I already had the answers. Basing my beliefs off my experiences in college, I thought they would see things the same way I misguidedly did: pointless products I passed every day to class that I would never use or need. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a much different response.

One of my first stops was at a small university in Philadelphia. As I struggled to traverse the small roads throughout campus in our oversized company van, I noticed blue light emergency phone towers everywhere. They were guarding building entrances, walkways, parking lots and, most notably, the boundaries of campus. The units were hard not to notice. An even more remarkable realization was that I felt safe; I felt protected. This was definitely something I hadn’t felt or noticed before.

Real-World Effectiveness

I made my way to the interview and met the university’s chief of campus police. For the majority of the interview, his responses were impersonal and general security rhetoric. However, the tone of the interview changed with my last question. When I asked him to recall any incidents that included an emergency phone activation, the chief became very engaged and talkative.

He talked about activations by students, faculty and staff for criminal, medical, transportation and a variety of other emergencies. He then concluded with a story about criminal deterrence and the towers’ importance to the campus community. The chief said, “The towers create a perimeter around campus and help identify suspicious activity. They act as a force multiplier. With everything they do for our officers and campus community, we couldn’t ask for more.”

Initially, my response was half confusion and half intrigue. The man I was interviewing had completely shut down my initial reservations about emergency communication phones on college campuses. He went on about their reliability and usefulness for everyone in the community. I asked myself, “Was I completely wrong about how important these units are to students, staff and faculty?”

I needed to hear the opinion of a student. I would know then, for sure, if these emergency phones really meant more to others than I originally thought.

The Students’ Viewpoint

The following day, I visited another nearby school to interview its information technology director. This interview was more technical and lacked the personal opinions I was looking for from the interview the day before. I took some free time between camera setups to interview several students walking to and from class. I wanted to confirm the other police chief’s praise of the emergency phones.

As expected, many of the students were less than interested in sharing their opinions with someone who they probably thought was selling something. After stopping nearly 30 students, I was finally able to get one to share her thoughts. I gathered her basic information and asked for her overall opinion about the emergency phones on campus. To my surprise, she answered with an immediate, “They’re great!” She added, “As a girl, it’s nice to know that if I press this button someone will be there for me. At night when I’m leaving the library, I feel safe walking back to my room.”

Afterward, I walked around campus and continued my search for students willing to share their thoughts concerning the emergency phones on campus. I was able to stop and talk with six more students. To my amazement, every one of them had something positive to say about the phones. They mentioned how safe they felt knowing the emergency phones were available. They talked about their own, or their friends’, personal experiences using the phones. Several even pointed out the positive response from their parents about the improved overall safety on campus.

Everything I thought about emergency phones was transformed by the stories and experiences of these students. I now saw that the phones offered a range of benefits to different people. Students saw them as a deterrent to crime, a direct line of communication to authorities and a safety net for a variety of situations. Students actually interacted with them and appreciated them across campus. They went to and from class knowing that they had an emergency contact at a moment’s notice. I now truly started to believe in the importance of these devices.

A Common Thread

I continued my trip down the East Coast, stopping and interviewing campus police officers and as many students as I could. Not a single police officer, student, faculty, staff member or parent had anything negative to say about the emergency phones on their campuses.

The night before I was to travel back home, I spent some time watching all the interviews I had shot. I wrote down notes and soon discovered common themes and ideas mentioned throughout the videos. I sorted these thoughts and came up with the four most common statements about the emergency phones on campuses—statements I think sum up the importance and effectiveness of emergency phones.

During each interview with campus police and security officers, the emergency phones were described as “force multipliers,” acting as an extended arm of the department, providing law enforcement eyes (security cameras) and ears (phones) to all areas of campus. One of the police chiefs I interviewed explained “force multipliers” best by saying, “The installation of these towers means that we don’t have to have police officers at those locations all the time. This allows our officers to engage in other patrol opportunities.”

The budgets of many campus police and security departments have been strained over the past few years. Departments have had to downgrade or put a hold on hiring new officers, which means there are fewer officers to patrol and serve on campus. The blue light emergency phones allow a single officer to use security cameras to monitor many locations on campus at the same time. This allows the police departments to increase or maintain the same monitoring level they had before the department downgrades and hiring freezes.

Every student, faculty member and officer agreed that the phones are a deterrent to crime. As noted earlier, I felt genuinely safe on several campuses after seeing the placement and number of blue light emergency phones. The blue LED lights on top of each unit light up the surrounding area and point out areas of refuge to passersby. One of the security officers I interviewed said it best: “The good guys and the bad guys know what the blue lights mean. They are a deterrent to any criminal activity. Everyone knows those areas are being patrolled and watched.”

Another officer from a university on the West Coast said, “There used to be several bad neighborhoods on the border of campus. Crime would occasionally roll through those areas and onto our campus. We installed several blue light emergency phones towers on the edge of campus at those locations, and, needless to say, criminal activity decreased.”

It’s not always a given that an individual has access to a cellphone during an emergency. Victims may be confused or scared. They may not know where they are, what’s happening or what to do. They may not know who to call or the phone number for the help they need. For these reasons, it is easy to see why emergency phones are necessary on campuses.

Emergency phones provide a direct and immediate line of communication to emergency personnel via the single touch of a button. Nearly all the police officers I interviewed had or knew of stories describing the confusion and chaos that can occur during an emergency. They all agreed that even in the age of cellphones, the blue light emergency phones are a necessary component for campus safety, providing easy and quick communication to emergency personnel.

A New Outlook

I have traveled all over the country and completed more than 60 interviews for my employer. Individuals of all ages, professions and backgrounds have explained to me the overall importance of emergency phones. A year ago I may have disagreed with them. But after all the interviews and stories I’ve heard, I am happy to say that I now see the positives that emergency phones can bring.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Security Today.

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