Police chief refutes Student Association’s concerns about emergency blue light system

Correction appended

GW’s police chief dismissed concerns about the University’s blue light phones last week after a student leader announced a lobbying campaign to fix what he called a broken system.

Student Association Sen. Marshall Cohen, CCAS-U, will introduce a bill Monday that asks the University to buy more blue lights and improve the visibility of existing ones. But University Police Department Chief Kevin Hay said the system is well maintained – and rarely used to report crime.

The number of alerts from GW’s 36 blue light machines has declined by 26 percent since 2010, and the majority are late-night pranks, Hay said.

Though UPD has received 229 calls from blue lights so far this year, Hay said the last time he could remember a student reporting a crime through the blue light system was two years ago, when a laptop was stolen off a table in Starbucks.

“I was surprised that [blue light use] was a perceived issue. I don’t see that as an issue,” Hay said. “The ones that we have are fairly robust, last a long time and we repair them from time to time.”

He said students have become more likely to call in crimes on their cell phones than through the blue light system, which was first installed on campus in 1991. In 2011, the University considered upgrading the system but never fully did so.

“I like them up as a back-up system, and it makes them still relevant,” Hay said. “What happens if your cell phone gets stolen? You still have a method of contacting us.”

Hay said the system remains “robust” and is tested every Monday and Thursday for bugs and glitches. Patrolling officers respond to calls in one to two minutes, he said.

But Cohen said students could be confused during an emergency because some models light up 24 hours a day, while others only turn blue when activated.

“I find it disturbing to wonder if they work. It doesn’t make sense for some to be lit up constantly and for some not to be. The system exists to be located,” Cohen said.

Peter Sacco, the vice president for community affairs for the SA, said that even though the system has become “less relevant” in recent years, it is still necessary to make the system better and “fully functioning.”

He wrote in an email that the outages pose a “moderate” risk to the students in a report on the blue light system, which he complied and presented to Hay and Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell.

Sacco said it becomes especially difficult to see the blue lights in poor weather.

“If you look at them from afar, they look similar to any other exterior light on campus,” he said. “If the University is going to keep a blue light system, it has to be maintained.”

While Cohen does not know the exact number of additional blue light phones he would like added to the Foggy Bottom Campus, he said that more phones in place will help campus safety.

Hay said the cheapest version of a blue light phone, one that is attached to a nearby wall, costs about $1,500, while a full tower costs around $5,000.

He said the city would have to approve each new spot because the city owns the sidewalks, which could mean a lengthy battle because of regulations about rerouting electricity.

This post was updated Nov. 4, 2013 to reflection the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the University replaced more than half of its blue lights in 2011. While GW considered upgrading its system then, it never did so. We regret the error.

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