Correction appended: March 7, 2013.
Sprinkled across campus, the blue light emergency phones sit often unused for any true emergency, but provide peace of mind to Penn State campus dwellers, Penn State Chief of Police Tyrone Parham said.
Even with the phones not being used often, Parham said there are no plans to get rid of the emergency phones on campus, citing that he hears from parents, students and prospective students that they are “desired.”
“We very seldom hear from people that there are too many or we shouldn’t put them up. The feedback we get shows they are preferred,” Parham said.
Because parents and prospective students visit other schools with blue light emergency phones, it’s almost an expectation for any campus to have them installed, he added. Parham also said that even with students having cell phones, the blue lights provide multiple alternatives, in case of low battery or signal problems.
The installation continues
New phones have recently been installed on campus, including a blue light emergency phone placed near Pennypacker Hall in East Halls that was boarded up since the end of summer to Feb. 27.
Originally, it was unknown who initiated the installation because it was not in the Penn State Police system, said Donald Reed, Penn State Police security system specialist.
Parham, as well as Paul Ruskin, the communications coordinator for the Office of the Physical Plant, and Conal Carr, the director of housing operations at Penn State, were also unaware of who controls the phone.
On Feb. 23, Reed said “a lot of people” were working to figure out who authorized the installation and who owns the phone.
Then on Feb. 25, Reed emailed the Collegian saying that the phone was installed as a part of a construction project, beginning in the summer of 2012, to upgrade Curtin Road. The contractor who worked on the project “failed to finish the installation” of the phone, Reed said via email.
The construction project was done in order to install pipes to provide necessary utilities to the Pegula Ice Arena, which is still under construction, Ruskin said.
The contractor informed OPP that the project was done, and so OPP assumed the blue light phone was functional, Ruskin said.
“It was a communication mix-up between the contractor and OPP,” Ruskin said.
Ruskin confirmed the phone is functioning as of Feb. 27, but the blue light was not working as of press time Thursday.
Typically, the police department evaluates new construction projects to determine the appropriateness of a blue light emergency phone, Parham said. The Pegula Ice Arena and the new biobehaviorial health building will have emergency phones included in their projects, Reed said via email.
The phones, which are highlighted in prospective student tours, are seldom used to report a crime that is in progress or a crime that had just happened, Parham said.
“The few times they are used, they are typically used for non-emergencies, such as a car breakdown,” Parham said. “We still take those calls, though, and make sure we get an appropriate resource there to be used.”
The phones “unfortunately” are also used as pranks, Parham said.
“On the other end, you’ll hear an intoxicated person. We respond to those, too, whenever it’s set off,” Parham said. “It’s more often at nighttime when they are used as a prank.”
There is no official number of how many times the blue light emergency phones have been used, because the police department does not keep that information in a searchable database. But the department is working toward obtaining software that would allow such a thing, Reed said.
But Diane Brown, the public information officer at University of Michigan, said there is no purpose in tracking how many times blue lights have been used because it does not help determine the value of them.
“How does one measure that value? If nobody ever uses it, but it deters crime, how do you ever measure that?” Brown said. “How do you measure if it’s used once in 10 years and it saves someone’s life?”
Ruskin did not know how much energy it takes to power a single blue light emergency phone but added that Penn State is "very active in energy conservation."
Ruskin said Penn State's monthly electricity bill is about $2 million dollars, but even with the costs incurred of running the blue light system, he said "constant safety is priceless."
Visibility of the phones
On Lion Ambassador tours, blue light phones are emphasized at a particular point in the tour devoted to discussing the blue lights and campus safety, Gabriella Colombo, a Lion Ambassador, said.
Lion Ambassador tour guides say a person should be able to see a blue light phone wherever he or she is standing on campus — and that if a blue light is not seen, there should be a 24-hour building nearby that will have a phone available in it, Colombo (senior-biobehavioral health) said.
But Parham said there are not enough phones on campus to be able to see one at all points on campus, adding that there are too many places on campus to make that feasible. Parham said he is not aware of access to a 24-hour building equipped with a phone when a light is not visible.
Logan Cawley, the president of Lion Ambassadors, said the tour guide script is a collaborative effort between the tour groups on campus and the Penn State admissions office.
Cawley (senior-biology) said in the high-trafficked areas, which is where the tours are given, the blue light emergency phones are visible. Cawley said the scripts are fact-checked, but some things “slip through.”
Lynn Koehler, assistant director of marketing and recruitment for admissions, could not be reached for comment.
At the University of Michigan, blue lights are not visible at all points on campus, Brown said. But at Ohio State University, if a person is standing at a blue light, another one should be visible, said Richard Morman, deputy chief of police with the Ohio State University Police Department.
At Ohio State, the blue light phones are not used often, but Morman can recall a time when an emergency phone was used during an armed robbery.
Morman said there are no plans to get rid of the phones on Ohio State’s campus.
“The infrastructure is in place already, why get rid of it? It’s another tool in your toolbox,” Morman said. “You don’t need it until you really need it.”
Other phones around campus
The 113 phones exclusively for emergencies are not the only types stationed around campus.
There are some phones on campus that are courtesy phones with a dial pad available for use, while the emergency phones will only have a direct line to the police. Also, there are phones around campus that are a combination of these two phones, Reed said.
“If it doesn’t have a blue light on it, it is definitely not a university police phone,” Reed said. “Some have a blue light, and they are a combination — courtesy phone and a red button.”
The red button, if pressed, is a direct line to the police, according to the Penn State Police website. Most emergency phones do not have a dial pad, but some have been installed on phones in outlying parking areas. This practice may or may not continue with the increasing use of cell phones, Reed said.
Certain newer phones also have cameras attached to the blue light phones as “a surveillance platform,” Reed said. An example of this can be seen at the corner of College Avenue and Shortlidge Road.
Other phones that are available on campus are found in elevators — there are 297. These began to be installed by OPP in 2004, after a student fell down an elevator shaft, Reed said via email.
When a call comes in, the operator knows what blue light phone has been activated before the reason for the call has been described, Reed said via email. The fact that the call came from a phone will be in a report, but the department does not keep a searchable history of the use of the phones, Reed said.
When Penn State housing began installing swipe card access in the residence halls, it also installed phones with an emergency button and the ability to make local calls, Reed said in follow-up information provided via email.
These 32 phones are considered “emergency/courtesy phones,” and in 1994 — after the installation of these phones near residence halls — Penn State Police made an agreement with housing to place blue lights over the emergency/courtesy phones that were not located adjacent to the residence hall, Reed said. An example of this can be seen at the corner of Bigler Road and Curtin Road.
Housing does have phones located outside individual residence halls that are strictly courtesy phones, with no emergency button, Reed said.
As far as the upkeep of the phones, the police regularly check them several times a month, Parham said. Student officers manually check half of the phones on campus once a week, Reed said.
“We check every phone to make sure they are working,” Parham said. “If there is one that is not working we call for immediate repairs.”
Ruskin said the Office of the Physical Plant takes care of the installation and repairs of the emergency phones.
“OPP works with security people across campus, and they install them whenever needed,” Ruskin said. “We do maintenance as needed.”
There isn’t too much maintenance involved, Ruskin said, but people “certainly expect those phones to function all the time, and if there was a problem, we do the repair work very fast.”
An earlier version of this article stated incorrect information about Penn State's electricity costs. Penn State pays about $2 million in electricity each month. The above article reflects the correct information. The Daily Collegian apologizes for this error.