In a sure sign of the ubiquity of cell phone usage these days, a community college district in California has rid its campuses of the emergency “blue phones” to save money.
The Contra Costa Community College District, which has almost 62,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area, made the decision to remove the 25 or so emergency call boxes from its three campuses primarily because of high maintenance costs. The “blue phones,” which have been on Contra Costa campuses for seven years, cost about $50,000 annually for upkeep. Two years ago, the college paid about $100,000 to upgrade the phones from analog to digital lines.
Despite this spending, the call boxes often broke down and some occasionally had “out of order” signs displayed on them for days. The models used on Contra Costa’s campuses ran on solar power, which charged batteries for usage in low or no sunlight.
Chief Charles Gibson, of the college’s police services, said that there had not been a single “verified, real emergency call” from a call box in his five years at Contra Costa. Mostly, he said, people use the phones mistakenly to report a flat tire on an automobile in a parking lot or to ask for directions to an administrative building, for example.
The most recent data  made available by Contra Costa, per the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act , indicate there were 187 “actual offenses” committed on its campuses in 2008. Of these, 134 were petty thefts, 35 were automobile thefts, 14 were robberies, three were burglaries and one was an assault. Data from previous years show similar patterns of light crime.
With the “blue phones” gone from the college’s campuses, Gibson said he expects emergency calls to come in to his office as they typically have in recent years: from cell phones. In the event that someone in need of assistance does not have a cell phone, he noted that there is almost always another person nearby with a cell phone or a campus security officer on duty.
“The blue phones might make people feel good, but if I’m a bad guy, I’m not really deterred by that phone,” Gibson said, adding that more focus is being put on the college’s neighborhood watch-style program in the absence of the call boxes. “Our thought upon taking the phones out wasn’t, ‘OK, let’s replace them,’ it was more, ‘Here’s an opportunity to highlight the other aspects of campus security we already have that work well.’”
The college plans to spend some money for more outreach efforts regarding its Campus Watch Program , but those costs are not expected to rival what the college previously spent on upkeep of the call boxes. The money saved will help Contra Costa meet the $8.7 million it has planned to cut from this year’s budget to make up for dramatic reductions in state funding of higher education.
“We’ve been throwing money down this ‘blue phone’ hole for a while,” Gibson said. “Finally, we said, ‘Hey, it doesn’t look like we’re getting a good return on our investment here.' ”
Christopher Blake, associate director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said that he has heard recently about institutions that are adding emergency call boxes and about those getting rid of them, and that he does not see a definable national trend in either direction at the moment. At the institutions that have decided to remove the phones, however, their increasing operating costs were a determining factor, he said.
“We don’t have a policy position on it,” Blake said. “In the past, we’ve cited ‘blue phones’ as being a deterrent. But, there are technological advances all the time in security. Our bottom line is it’s up to the individual campuses to address their own security needs.”
Jana McDonald, a telecommunications customer service representative at Texas A&M University, said that large residential campuses, like hers in College Station, are likely to have “blue phones” into the foreseeable future. In fact, she noted that a new one was installed Monday near a set of new dormitories, where it joined 100 or so already on campus. She noted that Texas A&M administrators consider the call boxes a protection against potential legal complaints holding them liable in the event that an emergency does happen.
Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, LLC, a higher education consulting firm that deals with student affairs issues, explained that suits like this are unlikely but certainly plausible, especially for institutions that have gotten rid of call boxes. She recommends that colleges that remove “blue phones” compile detailed information on their lack of use or constant breakdown, among other issues, to defend against such claims.
“I do think removing them can be a reasonable decision,” Franke said. “But you should always have documentation that you didn’t just do this to save money, but that there were operational reasons to justify the decision.”