The blue lights spotted all over campus have become comforting beacons for many Western students. They can see them from afar and know a call for help is only a few steps away.
But the glow on top of the emergency phone units could be providing a false sense of security on the Hill.
The university has 33 emergency phones visible around campus and on South campus. But when campus police checked them at the end of February, almost half of them weren’t functioning.
“It was very unusual, almost unheard of, the number of phones that weren’t working,” said Edwin Craft, associate director of telecommunications. “But most of the problems weren’t dead phone problems. They didn’t prevent the phones from doing their job.”
Telecommunications and facilities management are the two departments responsible for the phones’ maintenance.
When the emergency phones were checked at the end of January, there were only five that weren’t working.
“Hopefully the weather conditions were what contributed to the higher number in February,” he said. “The majority of the problems are already fixed though.”
Four of the phones were fixed after the volume control was turned up on the phone, Craft said.
One of the phones’ locking mechanism on the call button was not working. A sign was placed on another phone informing users to keep the call button pushed in while talking to the dispatcher, he said.
Four of the phones have a malfunctioning strobe light. This problem is handled by facilities management.
Facilities management representatives did not not return numerous calls to their office.
But five of the phones haven’t been functional since they were put up in December — two in the Capitol lot, two in the Center Street lot and one in the Felts lot, Craft said.
He said voltage is the reason the phones aren’t working — there isn’t enough. Craft said that when the phones were installed it was assumed they would function like the other emergency units on campus. But they are too far away, he said.
An A/C circuit is supposed to be added soon to give the phones enough power to complete calls. The project has been turned over to facilities management. Craft didn’t know when it would be completed.
But there are no signs warning students that these phones are not yet functional.
Capt. Mike Wallace said the emergency phones are set up as contacts to the campus police department’s dispatcher. When someone picks up the receiver, the phone automatically calls the dispatcher, and a strobe light is activated on top of the unit. Then a small red light on the unit is activated to let someone who is hearing impaired know a call has been placed.
The call, not the caller, reveals the location of the call at the station. The dispatcher then notifies campus police officers who respond as quickly as possible — ideally within 30 seconds, Wallace said.
“The phones provide a means of accessing help on a timely basis,” he said. “Not everyone has cell phones or knows the number to campus police.”
There is no set budget for the maintenance or purchase of emergency phones, Craft said. Telecommunications and facilities management is responsible for maintenance.
The phones have been purchased on an individual basis by the university, the Student Government Association and other university and community organizations.
Each phone costs about $2,500 and an additional $2,500 to install, Wallace said.
The first phone was purchased in 1993 and placed in front of Cravens Graduate Center after a female student was “forcibly walked off campus” from that area and raped.
“I don’t know if the emergency phone would have helped (the woman raped), but you never know,” Wallace said.
The Parking and Transportation Committee has made a commitment to purchase phones for all new parking lots the university creates, Wallace said.
There is at least one emergency phone in each of the university’s parking lots, on each floor of the parking structure and throughout the middle of campus.
Wallace said the phones are most commonly used to report suspicious activities, for motorist assists, by someone who is lost, or to report an accident.
“If someone pushes it, we are going to respond,” he said. “We encourage people to use them if they have a legitimate reason.”
Wallace stressed the importance of the emergency phones’ maintenance.
“You really want them to work in the event that someone needs them,” he said.
Reach Abbey Brown at [email protected]