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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


How high is the phone bill?

With nearly half a million dollars spent on close to 200 blue light emergency phones and call buttons and no direct record of usage for each $7,800 phone, their function and purpose are more speculative than conclusive.

An emergency system, started in the 1980s, was bolstered after the murder of a young woman in her dorm in 1986 spurred Lehigh University to put in place an emergency phone system, influencing former UA president Peter Likins, who used to work there, to question the UA’s system.

Likins asked the University of Arizona Police Department and UA Risk Management and Safety to reevaluate the system, which led to an initial 45 phones being constructed, according to Herb Wagner, associate director of UA Risk Management and Safety.

“”We get a call from the blue phones just about every day,”” said UAPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Juan Alvarez. Few of those calls though, Alvarez noted, were emergencies, as people will ask for directions, escorts or push them as a late-night joke.

UA Risk Management and Safety paid for and places freestanding phones on campus but phones in parking garages were placed during construction and included in their costs, said Bill Davidson, marketing specialist for Parking and Transportation Services.

A policy of adding the phones to new construction and major renovation projects mandates their placement around campus through to today.

The blue light phones replaced older red box phones with improved disability access. Students can access two models of telephones, some built directly into poles and others in self-contained yellow boxes. The phones are produced by Talk-A-Phone Co., a Chicago-based communications manufacturer, which charges a monthly $14 maintenance fee, said Mike Delahanty, operations director for Parking and Transportation Services.

In an emergency, UAPD officers drive straight to the scene in response to a pushed button at a blue light phone. Then the constant blue light above the phone will flash rapidly, illuminating the area until police arrive on scene.

Elizabeth Miller Coleman, the coordinator of the Lehigh University Police Department, said there is a record of each time an emergency phone on the Lehigh campus is used, calling it a “”good resource about it.””

But the UA, and many other schools, do not keep specific records of blue phone usage.

In a study by the Virginia Informer, of the 133 calls received by the College of William and Mary Police Department from emergency phones on campus between October 2009 and October 2010, only four were actual emergencies.

“”The emergency phones are used more often for tests than for actual problems,”” Don Challis, William and Mary police chief told the Informer in October. “”For most calls they’re used incorrectly.””

Tests at several campuses fall within police or police aide duties and provide little to no additional cost.

Capt. David Carlisle, with the University of Southern California Department of Public Safety, said the situation is the same on their campus with the phones being used “”very rarely.””

Carlisle said concerns raised on their campus about whether or not to keep the campus’s 300 to 400 phones, including elevator call buttons, raged but in the end “”the campus community wanted them to remain.””

At the UA, when a call comes in and is turned into a police report, it does not record where the phone call came from — blue phone, cell phone or any other phone.

According to Alvarez and Luis Puig, UAPD records keeper, the office keeps no records to differentiate blue light emergency phone calls from any other phone calls.

A number of schools are looking to move emergency calls also to cell phones; American University is hoping to implement a Push 5 for Emergency system.

“”Students can have, at the touch of a button, instant access to public safety,”” said Michael McNair, the public safety director at American University, in an interview with The Chronicle for Higher Education in April 2009.

Nationally, during its December meeting, the Federal Communications Commission will consider updates to the 911 systems to allow for text, photo or video messages from callers.

Chairman Julius Genachowski’s idea, not an official proposal of the FCC as of yet, was introduced during a speech in Arlington, Va., at the Arlington Emergency Communications Center, according to a November technology report by the Los Angeles Times. Genachowski said about 70 percent of emergency calls are made from mobile phones, prompting an update of the system.

Commander Mike Thompson of the Arizona State University Police Department said in a one-year study with a graduate student, inside a four-block radius on campus only three blue light phone calls were legitimate. There are close to 500 phones on the four ASU campuses — 346 on the Tempe campus, 76 on the downtown Phoenix campus, 18 at the Polytechnic campus and 51 on the west campus.

Of cell phones and emergency calls, Thompson said, “”There’s going to be two camps on this. One camp is that call boxes provide security and safety for students. There’s another camp that says that most people that are going to call the police these days are using the cell phones. The problem is not everyone has a cell phone and then they don’t want to have to call the regular police and have to explain and be transferred.””

The UA feels the phones are important to a safe public campus.

“”I do believe the (emergency phone system) enhances public safety,”” Wagner said in an email. “”The emergence of cell phones over the last 25 years may seem to devalue the system, but the fact that they are so visible, accessible and hard-wired so one-button activation makes location immediately to UAPD … (which) does not happen with cell phones, where there is a chance of the call not going through.””

Students on the UA campus have their own thoughts.

“”If you keep your eyes open, they are everywhere,”” David Hughes, a pre-business and political science freshman said. Hughes lives in Gila Residence Hall and sees an emergency blue light phone frequently.

Cell phones, although handy, Hughes said might not always be applicable in an emergency situation.

“”I think, maybe, if you are being followed, your first reaction may not be to reach for your cell phone, and when you see the blue light and hit the button and it’s all done for you,”” he said. “”I think they’re nice but hopefully no one has to ever use them. But they do help keep the campus safe.””

Thompson echoed the sentiments of many in that blue phones are a necessary expense for the campus good.

“”There’s some concerns there,”” Thompson said, “”and I sure don’t have all the answers.””


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