I see these emergency call stations (inf…

I see these emergency call stations (informally called “blue lights”) all over campus. They have a button, a speaker, a microphone, and a light. As I understand it, if you feel you’re in danger, you run to the nearest blue light and press the big red button. This will activate the blue light and (may?) activate a siren, to draw attention to you and your potential assailant. The second purpose is the speaker and microphone, which are essentially a 911 phone: you talk to a dispatcher who will offer advice and send the police your way.

When I was at Duke, visiting their Picasso exhibit this weekend, I noticed they have these lights too. Except theirs are a high-reflective yellow instead of white.

The Technician also revealed to me that there was another place these emergency call buttons were that I didn’t know about:

The panic buttons mounted on the inside of the stalls in the girl’s bathrooms of Harrelson Hall are in their last days of operation. When Harrelson Hall was at full student capacity, the buttons served to send a silent distress signal notifying campus police to respond to an emergency.

However, these buttons weren’t nearly as sophisticated as the blue lights: no microphone, no speaker, just a button. And so it gets more interesting:

Captain Jon Barnwell, campus police, said that that is a primary reason their removal is beneficial is in the twelve years the buttons [in Harrelson] have been employed there have been no successful uses of the systems. ‘The buttons serve no purpose but to drain resources,’ Barnwell said. ’99 percent of the activations are false alarms — just people goofing around. In the past year there have been over one thousand false alarms, each of which costs an officer forty-five minutes to undergo the entire response and filing process.’

Barnwell said he, instead, advocated for the use of more modern devices like cell phones or the call boxes scattered around campus. ‘“Every person with a cell phone has a panic button. It is more beneficial for the police to have voice confirmation of an emergency before responding.’
For the past five years Barnwell has made suggestions to the College of Physical and Mathematical Science — the original occupants of Harrelson Hall and those endorsing the buttons — to have them removed due to the costs to campus security.

Good for him. He’s right, too: like I said above, the microphone and speaker basically make these just an emergency phone. But everyone already has a phone on them.

That just leaves the second use: the bright blue light and (I think?) siren when activated. Essentially, it’s a personal car alarm. The idea is that by drawing attention to the potential victim, the attacker will be afraid of being witnessed and will therefore desist.

The underlying theory is identical to that of a car alarm: those things that everyone ignores because of all the false alarms. And, as the Twitter post I linked to at the top of this post shows, after a few years on campus, I’ve seen enough of these flashing their light with no one around that I have been conditioned to think that it’s not a sign of any danger. Just like when I hear a car alarm.

But it occurs to me: maybe these things have a third purpose: the illusion of security. Every time you see one (which is literally every minute as you walk across campus) you feel secure knowing that, if you had a problem, then you could use this blue light and the authorities would be there in a few minutes.

Which really makes me wonder: in 12 years of the operation of Harrelson’s emergency buttons, with its 5 false alarms per school day (assuming 180 days of school), I wonder how many false alarms the blue lights have produced. I also wonder how many crimes have been stopped by them.

My guess? None.