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Blue emergency phones: what they're for and how they help

A college campus featuring classic architecture.

As part of a comprehensive campus security strategy, blue emergency phones provide a direct line to emergency services

Higher education is an exciting era in a young adult’s life, but living on a college campus doesn’t isolate students from emergencies. According to stats compiled by Axon, there were 27,300 crimes reported on postsecondary education campuses over the course of 2019 and 2020, or almost 19 crimes per 10,000 students. These include assaults, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts, among others. To help deter these incidents, many campuses in the United States employ the use of blue emergency phones (also known as emergency blue light phones or blue light boxes).

But what, exactly, are blue emergency phones and how do they work? Furthermore, are they enough to keep college campuses safe? We’ll dive into the answers to those questions below. Helping you gain a more thorough understanding of the technology behind blue emergency phones and their place in an overall campus security plan.

What are blue emergency phones?

In 1986, the murder of Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery brought the issue of campus safety squarely into the spotlight. The resulting Clery Act required colleges to keep and disclose information about on-campus crime, as well as give students ample warnings of potential threats to the student body. One initiative that many universities took in the pre-cell phone era was the installation of blue emergency phones designed to deter criminals and give students a direct line to emergency services.

By 2005, 91% of four-year colleges receiving government aid had emergency blue light phones. As mobile technology has evolved, so too have these devices. Wireless technology, solar panels, live video and integration with other security systems are just a few ways blue emergency phones have been updated for the modern era. Though some have questioned the need for them when every student has a smartphone in their pocket, blue emergency phones continue to provide safety benefits for students, faculty and support staff alike.

How do blue emergency phones work?

The primary purpose of campus blue light emergency phones is to immediately connect the caller with emergency services. That might mean a direct line to the local police or the campus security headquarters, depending on how each college’s network is configured. For example, the blue phones at the University of Southern California connect callers with the university’s Department of Public Safety, a 24-hour communications center. At UC Irvine, meanwhile, blue emergency phones provide direct communication with the campus police department.

Typically, these phones are lit by a blue light that’s easy to see in the darkness (hence the alternate name emergency blue light phones). In some cases, the light might flash to deter nearby suspicious activity, as well as alert security officers or campus police to an emergency situation. In some cases, the caller may not be able to speak freely, so the light works as a backup to draw law enforcement to the location of the phone.

Why use a blue emergency phone instead of a mobile phone to call for help? While mobile phones are portable and should absolutely be used in emergency situations when there are no other communication options, they might be low on battery or out of signal range. Additionally, in high-stress situations, being able to push a single button and immediately reach the relevant emergency services is simpler than calling 9-1-1 and attempting to explain where you are and what’s happening.

When should someone use a blue emergency phone?

Campus dwellers should use these phones without hesitation if they feel like they’re in danger. UC Irvine lists a few examples in its emergency blue light phone guidelines:

  • Fire emergencies

  • Crimes in progress

  • Medical emergencies

  • Accidents

  • Reporting suspicious behavior or activity

While blue emergency phones became ubiquitous as a result of rising college crime, UC Irvine’s list provides an important reminder that these devices can also be used in non-criminal scenarios like fires, car accidents and life-threatening medical emergencies.

Are blue emergency phones worth it?

While installation and maintenance costs for campus blue light emergency phones vary, colleges should expect to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 to install each unit. That’s certainly not a small price to pay, which has led some — such as the student body at the University of Delaware, where blue light phones cost $6,000 to install and $10 a month to maintain — to question their value.

However, 90% of UD students also said the presence of blue emergency phones made them feel safer, showing that even if they’re not being actively used, they’re providing peace of mind. At Rice University in Houston, on-campus burglaries fell nearly 68% after the installation of 80 emergency blue light phones, showing their power to deter crime before it even occurs. These stats don’t come with a dollar value, but for students and their families, that feeling of safety likely far outweighs the cost of emergency phone installation and maintenance.

To get the greatest value out of your network of blue emergency phones, however, it should only be one pillar of a greater strategy. Law enforcement personnel like campus security guards and police officers should be equipped with the tools they need to keep campuses safe, such as body-worn cameras, and students must be educated on how all of these measures work together.

Axon makes campuses safer 

At Axon, our approach to campus safety is built on technology, transparency and training. Body-worn cameras and intuitive software provide complete transparency and real-time situational awareness, while VR classes prepare on-campus law enforcement officers for complex real-world scenarios. To learn more about Axon’s connected campus solutions, get in touch.