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Secure surroundings on college campuses

Why emergency call boxes may still have a place on campuses—as part of a mix of student safety technologies
University Business, June 2018
BLUE LIGHT BEACON—Kansas State University Police monitor phone call boxes located throughout the campus.  Besides seeking help in an emergency or reporting other incidents, the community is also encouraged the use the boxes for wayfinding assistance. (Cindy Hollingsworth).
BLUE LIGHT BEACON—Kansas State University Police monitor phone call boxes located throughout the campus. Besides seeking help in an emergency or reporting other incidents, the community is also encouraged the use the boxes for wayfinding assistance. (Cindy Hollingsworth).

When it comes to a student’s priorities, knowing the locations of classrooms and dining halls outweighs finding the blue emergency boxes installed around campus, and downloading ride-share and meal delivery apps ranks higher than accessing safety apps.

“We have a group of 18- to 22-year-olds on campus and their safety is the last thing on their minds,” says Randy Burba, chief of public safety at Chapman University in Orange, California and immediate past president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Safety is, of course, a priority for administrators and parents.


Online exclusive: Security providers on highly visible campus security measures


Mobile apps, text alerts, personal panic buttons and other new technologies give students more ways to communicate safety concerns. This, campus police believe, increases the odds that problems will be reported and addressed.

Such high-tech tools also serve as security force multipliers, says Rod Levette, assistant director of public safety at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. They provide campus security officers with access to essential information, including GPS locations and live camera feeds, to help maintain a safe environment.

Despite the plethora of high tech tools designed to improve student safety, ever-present blue boxes are still security mainstays on campus. The towers are visual reminders that campuses prioritize safety and help is available at the push of a button. 

The “old school” technology is routinely upgraded with cameras, pre-recorded messages and live broadcasts. Incorporating a mix of old and new technologies into campus security ensures that students have multiple ways to connect to safety officers.

4 tips for choosing and using safety tech tools

When it comes to choosing from an ever-increasing number of student safety technologies, narrowing down the options can feel overwhelming.

“Technology can contribute to making campuses safer but you need to take a holistic approach,” says Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center, which works to prevent campus violence.

Kiss offers four tips to help administrators make the best choices for their campus.

1. Be prepared to customize. What works for a large urban campus, of course, might not fit the bill for a small rural school. Establish a working group to evaluate student safety needs and to explore the available tech solutions.

2. Ask students for feedback. Even when a safety tool shows value, it won’t work unless students are willing to try it. “Give them a voice in the process instead of handing something down and telling them to use it,” Kiss says.

3. Launch a PR campaign. “Students need to be educated about what tools are available and how to access them,” says Kiss. Increase awareness of safety technologies via e-blasts, campus news articles and residence hall meetings.

4. Know the law. The Clery Act requires campuses to use emergency notification systems that reach all students. Taking a multimodal approach that includes social media, text messaging and apps is fine as long as institutions comply with these requirements.

Embracing legacy technology

Despite all the new technology, the ubiquitous blue boxes still stand on the vast majority of college campuses (92 percent as of 2011-12, according to a U.S. Department of Justice special report on campus law enforcement).

In fact, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Brigham Young University in Utah and Contra Costa Community College District in California caused a stir when, over the past eight years, each announced a decision to remove their blue boxes.

Although these units can be upgraded—with costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to a little over $1,000 per unit, according to Code Blue Corporation—the original functions (a telephone and flashing light) still serve an important need.

At Seattle University, a blue box provided an important lifeline for a male student who was robbed in a campus parking lot. The thief made off with his cell phone so he used the blue box to call for help and officers were dispatched, says Craig Birklid, executive director of public safety at the institution, which has 70 blue boxes across campus.

Most blue box calls come from students having car trouble and visitors requesting directions.

Police at Kansas State University welcome non-urgent calls received through its 52 blue boxes, says Bradli Millington, support services lieutenant.

For example, a caller who said “Hey, I’m lost. I’m trying to find Call Hall for ice cream,” got directions on how to get to the campus ice cream parlor, he says. “We use them as emergency phones and as courtesy phones.”

Rochester Institute of Technology directly encourages students to use the blue boxes for non-emergencies. If you need a jumpstart, are locked out of your car or want an escort, “press the large red button,” the RIT student handbook says.

Hardwired technology offers another important advantage over cell- and WiFi-enabled safety devices: reliability.

“The blue boxes are one of the most reliable forms of communication we have on campus right now,” Levette says. “All of these other technologies are networked, putting more and more pressure on our IT department to make sure the network is up and running. If the network goes down, devices [and apps] don’t work.”

Perception also matters. Parents appreciate the visual reminder that campus safety is a priority and their child will be OK, says Levette. They’re thinking: “I’m leaving you here and I want to know you have all of the tools possible to get help if you need it.’ ”

The University of Southern California has 300 blue boxes spread across its campus and plans to continue using them to complement high-tech campus safety initiatives such as emergency notification systems and downloadable apps.

But blue boxes are not the only old-school element that continues to play a key safety role. “Having officers out in the field is still valuable,” says David Carlisle, assistant chief in the department of public safety. “No amount of technology can replace boots on the ground.”

Adding tools to the mix

RIT introduced its first campus safety app, developed in-house, in 2013. TigerSafe, a free download, lets students report crimes or request services—such as help with a lockout—via in-app messaging. The app also has a GPS-enabled mobile panic button that calls campus police.

Kansas State officials launched a campus safety app in 2015 when they realized students would rather send texts than call to report concerns. Students can also send photos, audio or video attachments to campus police. The app includes peer-to-peer tracking so students can “watch” friends to ensure they arrive at their destinations safely.

“We want to give students as many options as possible to communicate with us,” says Millington.

The app integrates with existing dashboards at the dispatch center, where all calls for service appear on the screen. That connection eliminates the need for additional staff training each time the campus rolls out new technologies. But students still need to be taught to use these technologies—and that remains a challenge.

RIT, which started the fall 2017 semester with close to 19,000 undergraduate and graduate students, has seen its TigerSafe app downloaded just 1,173 times in the last six months. Kansas State, with nearly 24,000 students, reports only 3,045 downloads—and Millington suspects faculty and staff account for the largest percentage of users.

Lack of interest led Seattle University to discontinue its campus safety app in 2014. Among the complaints: Launching an app during emergencies was inefficient.

The university started selling personal panic buttons instead.

The subsidized devices sell for $30 (about half the retail cost) through the public safety office. With the push of a button, campus police can be dispatched to the user’s location.

Yet, interest in the personal panic buttons, which are fob-sized and GPS-enabled, is low. Seattle University has sold an estimated 150 devices since the 2016 rollout, and Birklid estimates that parents make 85 percent of the purchases. Mass notification systems supplement opt-in solutions to ensure all students receive information about emergencies.

Are institutions second-guessing their investments in apps and panic buttons? Administrators tend to have no regrets. Here’s one example why: An RIT student pushed the mobile blue-light button in the TigerSafe app when a friend threatened to hurt herself. Campus police were dispatched to the dorm room and got the student the help she needed.

Burba cites those kinds of anecdotes as proof of ROI. If one person pushes the button and averts an incident,” he says, “it was worth it.”


Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer who frequently contributes to UB.