Illuminating safety

Not all blue lights fully functional

The only time Eve Carson stepped before the Chapel Hill Town Council's podium was to ask for increased emergency call boxes and lighting off campus.

"There is really no issue which concerns everyone - students or citizens - more than safety," the student body president told the council in September.

"There's nothing which concerns us more than our security."

As representatives from student government made their case, Carson stood behind them, nodding her head in support of the initiative that began with her predecessors' administrations.

The project's $80,000 cost came from student-approved fee increases, something Student Body Outreach Director Christian Mibelli said was a reaction to increasing fears.

"For us not to feel safe when it's dark outside is pretty sad," Christie Cunningham, Carson's senior adviser, told council members.

And it was Carson who faced their worst nightmare.

After police found her shot to death in an intersection on March 5, students are paying more attention to both their surroundings and the setups in place to keep them safe.

A Daily Tar Heel analysis shows that areas with more blue lights have less reported crime. At the same time, the survey found gaps in the blue lights system that could challenge its effectiveness.

A survey of the lights

Student government proposed adding three new off-campus call boxes last March to the just more than 200 located on University property throughout Chapel Hill.

The 9-foot-tall black poles have blue strobe lights that are set off whenever a button is pushed.

The Department of Public Safety can track which call box is activated, and officers respond each time.

"This is a means for anyone on campus to be able to use call boxes to have a direct link into the police department," said Lt. Angela Carmon in DPS's crime prevention office.

The DTH tried to follow the blue light path from one to the next. By design, each should be in sight of another. The results show inconsistencies in visibility, accessibility and placement of the blue lights. In a survey of 71 call boxes:

  • Only 49 had blue lights, while 22 had yellowed with age.
  • Only 13 were in sight of another call box. At the remaining 58, no other blue lights could be seen.

Additionally, one was hidden behind a tree, and one couldn't be touched because construction closed off the area around the light.

The women's affairs committee of student government brought many of those same concerns to DPS's attention three years ago.

"We met with (the women's affairs committee) and looked at it," Carmon said. "I have yet to date to get a concern from someone in the (DPS) office that they weren't able to readily recognize one."

But from a distance, many of the yellowed lights blend in with street lighting, making it hard to determine whether one is a call box.

"It makes it harder because you have a lot of other yellow lights," freshman Janki Patel said. "When you're in an emergency you probably need something that can jump out at you."

And because other call boxes are visible from only 13 of the blue lights, it's nearly impossible to see where to run to next.

Increased visibility is why the lights are supposed to be blue, said John Laetz, manager of Electric Distribution Systems, which is responsible for upkeep of the lights.

The blue color can yellow with age and deterioration, he said.

Laetz said that EDS does inspect the call box lights regularly, adding that while the company currently only does demand maintenance - fixing things that are broken - it is restructuring to provide more preventative maintenance.

"If something happens to it we go out and fix it," he said.

A changing role

UNC's first call boxes were placed in the 1980s. One trend seen nationwide, though, is the decreased use of blue lights as cell phones have become more available.

"It makes more sense to call 911 (on a cell phone) and keep moving," said Mibelli, who was chairman of the safety and security committee when it began looking at off-campus call boxes.

Steve Carlton, a senior officer in crime prevention at N.C. State University, said that police can track most cell phone callers to within 6 feet of where a call is made thanks to GPS technology.

Carlton said NCSU tells students that having a cell phone often is just as good as having a blue light.

Despite the decreasing role that emergency call boxes play, Maj. Gloria Graham said Duke University isn't looking to stop adding lights.

"Not all of our students have cell phones," she said. "We have not stopped putting them in."

At UNC, the number of students who use the call boxes also is small.

"It's very little, from what I've been given from dispatch," Carmon said. "I know that they're not used frequently."

Even when they aren't used, many still believe the lights play a significant role in deterring crime.

Part of that comes from the comfort of knowing the boxes are there if needed.

And crime reports from DPS since January 2005 show fewer reported crimes in areas where there are more blue lights.

"I continue to believe that call boxes have a deterrent effect on crime," former Student Body President James Allred said in an e-mail. His administration got the ball rolling on adding off-campus call boxes.

Away from campus

Although the visibility and accessibility of call boxes is inconsistent on campus, many students still say they feel safer there than off campus.

"I feel like on campus is really well lit," sophomore Eleanor Cooper said. "Off campus, not so much."

Cooper will be living off campus for the first time next year and said lighting is a concern, especially in areas along Rosemary and North Columbia streets.

Liz Parham, director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said lighting plays a significant role in how safe people consider an area.

"If you're in more of a well-lit area it's perceived to be a safer area whether it is or not," Parham said.

In 1993, additional lighting was recommended for much of the downtown area as part of the town's Streetscape design plans.

Changes made since then include replacing lights on East Franklin Street with higher-watt bulbs and installing additional light poles on the 100 blocks of East Franklin and North Columbia streets, as well as parts of West Franklin Street.

Student government's push for pedestrian lighting and off-campus call boxes began before Carson took office and aimed at making students living off campus feel safer.

"The idea of off-campus blue lights was largely student-driven," Allred said. "I pushed the idea based on the suggestions and affirmation of students."

Student government looked at reports showing areas with high student populations and overlapped them with crime density reports to find the best locations to place the call boxes.

Additional funds also were set aside for street-level lighting.

"It was our goal that by increasing street-level lighting you're also going to reduce crime in the first place . so there wouldn't be a need for more call boxes," Mibelli said.

Since the September council meeting, town staff have been in discussions with residents, Duke Energy and student government about the logistics of placing the off-campus call boxes.

The town will host a forum April 8 for residents of the areas where the lights were recommended.

Growing pains

But adding the call boxes off campus was a long process that highlights the challenges of expanding the number of blue lights.

"One of the things to understand is that it's not as easy as saying, 'Let's add a light post here,'" Mibelli said.

The call boxes are managed by three entities - DPS, EDS and Information Technology Services.

DPS responds to activated call boxes, EDS maintains the strobe lights and ITS oversees the communication lines that link the call boxes with DPS. It takes all three working together to decide where to place new blue lights.

Some said the oversight of the blue lights should be streamlined.

"It does not make sense for three departments to share responsibility," Allred said.

Anyone can suggest locations for new call boxes through DPS, but limited funding means not all requests are granted, Carmon said. Some funding comes from individual departments.

"If there are additional needs then it's generally the job of the requesting school or department to look for or provide the funding for that request," Carmon said.

The cost of a new box ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, in addition to installation costs and recurring electricity and phone charges.

"In terms of adding blue lights, the dilemma comes with efficient spending of student fees," Mibelli said. "Those decisions aren't black and white.

"There's only so much you can do for a campus this size."

Contact the City Editor at

Other N.C. campuses

Colleges across the country face similar challenges when trying to keep their campuses safe.

Of the 16 UNC-system universities, while all boast emergency call boxes, the number of blue lights varies from as few as 11 to as many as 400.

N.C. State University has about 400 call boxes in the form of traditional freestanding poles and wall units in parking decks and elevators, said Steve Carlton, a senior officer in crime prevention.

"We try to put them so at least they're visible from one to another," Carlton said. "We look for the needs around the area as the university grows."

In Durham, Duke University has about 500 call boxes, of which about 140 are poles with lights, Maj. Gloria Graham said.

Duke's campus police works with other offices on campus to add blue lights in areas of both new construction and high pedestrian traffic.

"It's kind of a holistic approach," Graham said.


Share on social media?

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Tar Heel.

2016-17 March Madness Preview by The Daily Tar Heel

Print Edition

Print Edition