The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday June 12th

Have campus blue light call boxes outlived their usefulness?

An emergency call station sits outside of Hanes Art Center on Aug. 25, 2019.
Buy Photos An emergency call station sits outside of Hanes Art Center on Aug. 25, 2019.

On the way back to her dorm from a party last year, a UNC student stopped at the field hockey bathrooms and spent the next few hours vomiting. She said she thinks she might've been drugged. 

When the student, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, was able to walk out of the bathroom, she pressed the call button at the closest blue light call box.

“I told them that I needed emergency services,” she said. “I needed an ambulance or something because I felt really, really bad.”

An ambulance arrived soon after, taking her to receive medical care.

“Because I didn’t have my phone or my keys, otherwise I probably just would’ve been in the bathroom on the floor,” she said.

The call box she used is one of nearly 300 on UNC’s campus today, according to Randy Young, media relations manager for UNC Public Safety. He said in an email statement that when the boxes were initially installed on campus over 30 years ago, there were just over 100. 

The push button of a call box immediately contacts a 911 dispatcher at the UNC Police Department and sets off a strobe light for police to easily locate the caller.

Although students learn how to use them during new student orientation, the number of call box activations has decreased over the years. UNC continues maintaining the call boxes, but some universities have removed them due to costs, low use and mobile safety apps.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln removed all but two of their over 85 call boxes in 2017, Police Operations Captain John Backer said. 

The department received only 19 calls between 2011 and 2014, he said. None of them were emergencies, Backer said; students called to ask for directions or pushed the call box buttons and ran as a joke. 

Backer said the call boxes are not needed on campuses in an age of mobile phones and safety apps. 

“Technology and the reliability of that technology has advanced enough where the blue phones have really outlived their usefulness,” Backer said. 

Funding considerations also played a role in decisions to remove the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s call boxes. He said it would cost $1.7 million over 15 years just to maintain them.

Backer said investments toward maintaining the blue phones could be used to promote other methods of contacting police and safety departments. 

Each new call box at UNC costs around $5,100, and maintenance costs after installation are low, Young said. Recurring costs are paid for by ITS Communication Technologies. 

Young said in an email statement that call boxes are occasionally installed at new locations on campus in coordination with new construction or input from the campus community.

The University of Georgia and the University of Colorado at Boulder have also removed their call boxes. 

Data gathered by the University of Georgia showed that call boxes had become obsolete, according to Greg Trevor, executive director of media communications for UGA. Over the last eight years that they were maintained, police received no emergency calls.  

Both the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado at Boulder have turned to cell phones and mobile apps, such as Lifeline Response, for campus safety. 

UNC uses the LiveSafe app, which connects to campus police, but some students still want call boxes on campus.

“My instinct is to say, ‘Keep them on campus,’ only because if I didn’t have my phone in my hand, it was in my bag and I felt unsafe or was in a situation where something was happening to me that I needed help to get out of,” Samantha Shaw, a junior transfer student, said. “I think the emergency light would provide an easy way or an easier way than having to dig through my bag to try and get to something or call someone.”

Young said in an email that UNC regularly reviews safety resources on campus, including the blue light call boxes, but there are no plans to remove them at this time.

Sophomore Mary Enloe said she would like to see more call boxes on campus. She said students should not necessarily be expected to have safety apps or access to a smartphone.

“I think that also touches on a barrier in socioeconomic status,” Enloe said. “Like people from lower income families who maybe don’t have as much technology don’t have the same access to safety if you consider that the standard for being safe on campus.”

university@dailytarheel.com

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