New To Emergency
Students, faculty offer words of support for lighted towers
- By Eric Holtane
- Sep 01, 2012
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.
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
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.