On Call

It has become a common sight: People with cellular phones pressed to their ears, gabbing to friends or closing a business deal as they drive their cars, eat their lunch or stand in line at the bank.

Or, as they walk across campus to their next class.

The affordability of cell phones has put them in the hands of greater numbers of students, and those carrying them gain a greater sense of security knowing they can summon help from any location. This begs the question: Are emergency call boxes still critical to campus safety?

Definitely. Security officials at colleges and universities say the growing availability of cell phones hasn't diminished the need for campuses to have adequate numbers of visible emergency call boxes.

"I don't think there's any less of a reason to have call boxes," says Thomas Hicks, assistant director of public safety at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "Seeing them on campus provides people the assurance that assistance is available."

COVERING THE CAMPUS

The types vary from campus to campus, but most colleges and universities have some version of call boxes so that students and others on campus can quickly connect with police or security officers. They usually are painted a bright color and affixed to a stanchion or pole that often has a light on top so it can be seen from a distance.

At Arizona State University in Tempe, the campus has more than 220 call boxes, and police get four or five requests each year to add more.

"They are still used quite a bit," says Stewart Adams, crime prevention coordinator with the Arizona State University police department. "The community wants them. They feel good about having them."

For call boxes to be most effective, campus security officials need to make sure that they are available throughout the campus.

"Our philosophy is if you're going out of sight of a call box, ordinarily another one should be coming into view," says Adams.

Security officials keep track of campus construction, pedestrian patterns and crime reports to determine where the most effective locations are for call boxes.

"It's an ongoing process," says Hicks. "We try to locate them in areas we know are heavily trafficked. As the campus landscape continues to evolve, we will continue to evaluate the need for more boxes."

IMMEDIATE RESPONSE

Although cell phones provide more flexibility, campus police officials say emergency call boxes have important advantages. A 911 call on a cell phone typically will be routed to the municipal law-enforcement agency, not to campus police, who usually can respond more quickly to a campus incident.

Also, most emergency dispatch systems cannot determine the location of someone who calls 911 from a cell phone. An emergency call from a campus call box - triggered by someone lifting the receiver or by the push of a button - immediately alerts the campus police dispatcher to the origin of the emergency call.

Most campus police departments respond to alerts from call boxes even when the call is interrupted before someone can give officers details of the situation.

A cell-phone caller could tell the dispatcher where he or she is, but often someone in an emergency situation can't provide that information coherently. In other cases, people unfamiliar with the campus might not be able to provide enough information about their whereabouts.

Even though many students have access to cell phones, using the call boxes provides an extra level of comfort.

"They could just call a friend, but they feel it's better to call someone they know they can trust," says Adams.

DEFINING EMERGENCY

Arizona State allows the call boxes to be used for "lesser levels" of emergencies, such as students who have lost their keys or whose car has a flat tire. In general, the police department tries to educate those on campus that the call boxes are there to be used.

"People don't want to touch them," says Adams. "They're afraid that what's happening is not really enough of an emergency to use the call boxes."

Other campuses have the flip side of the problem - students who mistake inconvenience for an emergency and are too willing to use the phones in inappropriate situations.

"People don't hesitate to use them," says Hicks. "We get an average of four false alarms a day. People call to say, `I can't find a parking space.' We tell them to call back on a non-emergency line."

Hicks recommends that schools minimize the number of emergency call boxes they install inside campus buildings. A disproportionate number of false alarms come from inside buildings.

In a crowded corridor, people are more likely to bump into the call boxes and knock the receivers off the hook or inadvertently push the emergency button. Since most police treat an off-the-hook call box as a 911 emergency, officers must respond to such false alarms.

Students usually have other ways to reach police when they are in a campus building.

"In most cases, another phone is readily available," says Hicks.

Sidebar: Beyond Call Boxes

One obvious limitation of call boxes is that they are stationary. But as technology improves, colleges and universities may be able to overcome that drawback.

During the 1999-00 school year, Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., tested a new security system that offered students their own personal alert system.

The units were about the size of a beeper, small enough to be held in a student's hand as he or she traveled across campus. To alert authorities in an emergency, a user pushed a button on the device.

The signal sent to campus police provided not only the location of the person reporting the emergency, but also personal information about the caller. An officer responding to a call would already know who was needing help, whether that person had any recurring medical problems or was being harassed or stalked by someone.

But after a year, not enough students were willing to pay the $5 per month fee for the devices, and the units did not always work properly from the interiors of some campus buildings. So the university decided not to continue the program.

"It wasn't popular with the students," says Capt. Eric Hendricks of the Clemson University Police Department. "Students found that it was a little bit cumbersome to carry the units or get them out of their backpacks. They decided that using a cell phone was faster for them."

Other campuses looking at similar systems have been stymied by the price tag.

"We examined that type of technology, but at this point it is cost-prohibitive," says Thomas Hicks, assistant director of public safety at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "We'll continue to look at it to see if it suits our needs."

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