Blue lights are scattered throughout campus and accessible to students between buildings. Photo by Michaela Flonard

Point/counterpoint: Apps, phones make blue lights obsolete

New technology has made the blue lights on campus effectively useless, and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

The University of Tulsa blue lights: what exactly do these lights provide? Security or false hope? There was a time when these lights were exactly what college campuses needed, but that time has passed. Before cell phones were commonplace, even just walking through the middle of campus carried tremendous risk. The search for a system that allowed a potential victim to alert campus security of a situation and have their location be marked was paramount. TU’s blue lights were perfect for that situation based off the resources they had then. They provided both a beacon of safety to the students and a sign from the university that security was a priority. However, the blue lights now are costly, ineffective and on their way out on many university campuses. To be clear, this is not an attack on the University of Tulsa, but it is merely the first of hopefully many calls for innovation considering the resources that we have now.
While I couldn’t find out what our security lights cost TU annually, I was able to dig up some costs from other universities. On the lower-spending end, Colorado State University spends about $5,000 annually for 64 boxes, while the University of North Carolina at Greensboro costs about $2,000 per box annually. With 41 telephone boxes on campus, that means that TU could be spending anywhere from $3,200 to $82,000 a year on telephone boxes that are used very scarcely. To give a frame of reference from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a campus security guard generally makes between $26,000 and $35,000 a year. This money can be better spent elsewhere, and many universities have reallocated.
The University of Colorado Boulder is one such university. At the direction of Melissa Zak, the police chief of the CU-Boulder Police Department, all blue light towers have been removed. In an open letter to the public, Zak claimed that the misuse and disuse of the emergency alert system served as her reason for the removal. Not only did most emergency calls come from cell phones anyways, but “more than 90 percent of the calls CUPD [received] from ‘blue light’ phones are pranks or hang-ups” along with other non-emergency situations. Joining CU Boulder are other universities such as New Mexico State University, the University of Vermont and the University of California Davis. Some universities have even had students create apps as an alternative to the blue light system. I decided to try one of these apps for myself to see how effective it could be.
Companion: Personal Safety is a completely free app designed by students from the University of Michigan. When I downloaded Companion, it first prompted me for my phone number and then verified it through a text. After that, it had me set a Safety Pin (to verify my identity on trips) and then asked for permission for location, notifications, and motion activity. I then added the numbers of six people that I wanted to be my Companions, people who I knew I could call or message in unsafe situations. Once that was all set up, I set up a trip for myself on the app. I had the option to choose between a timed trip and a destination, this time I picked a destination and selected one friend from my Safety Circle. Once they accepted, the app kept my friend updated via text (they don’t even need to have it downloaded) of my progress through both status texts and a link to a livemap of my location. The livemap even included the names of all nearby buildings and residence buildings. During the journey, I could message my Companion or call 911 with just the press of a button. Along with these basic settings, the app also has Safety Triggers that can be manually turned on. These Triggers are activated if I run, I drop my device, my headphones are removed from the jack or if I go too far off course. Once a Trigger is activated, the app will automatically go into Alert Mode unless disabled in 15 seconds. Once Alert Mode is activated, the phone will emit loud noises and alert all Companions who can call campus security if you are unable. Overall, it is a worthy alternative to the blue light and one I hope the University of Tulsa considers adopting.
Granted, there are some limitations to app-based security measures, such as faulty GPS and the requirement to have a smartphone of some kind. However, that doesn’t mean the blue lights don’t have limitations of their own regarding location and availability. If an assailant is pursuing someone who is having to move from emergency light to emergency light, then the victim’s path could become much easier to predict. Also, if the victim suddenly has to veer off track, then that could throw off the responding officers. Whereas if the victim is using a phone that is constantly transmitting their location and has an open line to dispatch, then there is more of an opportunity for erratic movement and quicker rescues. That situation is one where I believe the pros outweigh the cons. This is possible if the victim has a cell phone, though not everyone does. If there is a time when you must cross campus without a phone, I would highly recommend trying to contact campus security via a residence hall desk phone or a friend’s phone to arrange an escort.
Safety is not always perfect or guaranteed, but using an outdated system is far riskier than the newer and more viable alternatives presented by today’s technology. While the blue lights stand as a physical indication of security on campus, their bark is more than their bite and their promise of safety may well be false. Removing them will be costly as progress always comes at a cost. However, when it comes to following through on that campus-wide promise of safety and security, no cost is too high.

Post Author: Brian Kwiecinski