Analysis: Blue light system underused

The widely touted emergency blue light phones across GW’s Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses remain underused, according to an analysis by The Hatchet.

The lights – which allow students to signal the University Police Department to respond to on-campus emergencies – were activated 463 times during the last fiscal year according to University data, but typically in cases unrelated to any form of crime.

Students interviewed said they do not know how the lights work and have never seen or heard of an activated light, and even the University has conflicting data about the number of blue lights located around campus.

Executive Assistant Chief of Police James Isom originally told The Hatchet there are 36 blue lights across both the Foggy Bottom and the Mount Vernon campuses, but a document received from UPD with light locations lists 36 locations on the Foggy Bottom Campus and three on the Mount Vernon Campus.

A “Pride in Protection and Service” brochure published by UPD states there are 39 blue lights on the Foggy Bottom Campus and four on Mount Vernon. Isom did not return request for comment on the actual number of emergency phones for this report.

Conflicting data on the time it takes for UPD to respond to an activated light also plagues the system.

Isom said officers arrive at the activated phone within five minutes, but typically find nobody is there, or discover individuals who are lost and request directions and other aid unrelated to criminal activity.

Student admissions representatives, or STARs, however, are told to tell prospective students on tours that there is a 90-second response time between when a light is activated and when officers arrive at the scene, three and a half minutes shorter than Isom’s estimate.

Isom said “there have been occasions” when UPD has conducted drills to test the response time to activated blue lights, but did not respond to a request for the date of the last drill.

“Sometimes that [time] is a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but that’s the average we get,” said a STAR tour guide about the response time she was told to tell prospective students and their families. The STAR requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak on the record. “When we talk about the blue light system we also talk about safety and security on campus and tell them there should be a blue light within a block.”

Chair of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Crime Prevention Committee Lee Struble said he is not aware of many colleges that attach specific police response times to blue light activations – as UPD does – and would be reluctant to put a time limit on unpredictable situations.

“Dispatches are based on priority,” Struble said. “If everything was normal, we could have a response within two minutes or three minutes. But we all know when something happens, everything’s not normal.”

The pattern of blue light phones seldom being used during crime-linked emergencies is not unique to GW, however. Other city campuses bearing emergency phones encounter a similar trend, data shows.

Drexel University and Boston University both have a typical two-minute response time and almost three times as many emergency phones than at GW. But phones at both schools only occasionally function as devices to signal for help in crime-related situations, similar to the data found at GW.

Drexel’s campus in the hub of urban Philadelphia has 105 emergency phones, according to their Department of Public Safety. The phones were used 21 times in 2009 and 28 times to date in 2010, primarily in circumstances of vandalism or to obtain directions or information.

BU has 114 emergency phones, and Colin Riley, executive director of media relations at BU, said the vast majority of calls are not emergencies, simply “rather routine things” such as bicycle theft.

The success of blue light phones as campus safety devices, Struble said, is dependent upon a police department being adequately staffed to respond to activations. But, he added, it is essential for students and officers to be familiar with the technology because “training is a big issue.”

“You have certain tools, so how familiar are people with those tools? If they aren’t very familiar, they aren’t going to be very helpful,” Struble said.

Sophomore Owen Harrington-Woodard said he has never used the blue lights and could not list more than two light locations.

“I don’t know that the blue lights make me feel particularly safe,” Harrington-Woodard said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.