Blue Light Emergency Phones Under Consideration

Walking back from a long night of work at McCabe or from an evening out, Swarthmore is mostly serene, with only occasional streetlights and snippets of conversation punctuating the dark quiet.

“It feels a little bit eerie,” Matthew Goldman ‘15 said, and many others echo this sentiment.

Swarthmore may be setting out to change that. According to the administration, the College is considering rolling out a blue light emergency phone system.

These devices, employed in 91 percent of all college campuses, according to a 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, summons Public Safety to the location with the click of a button. Bryn Mawr and Haverford both employ them. The most modern devices even take photos and allow individuals to broadcast a message directly to everyone in the vicinity.

Swarthmore’s campus, which does not employ this system, does have many emergency phones, according to Michael Hill, Swarthmore’s director of public safety.  These phones automatically connect a student calling to a local 911 dispatcher and are scattered throughout the campus area from the SEPTA station to the Science Center. The blue lights could, in some cases, be placed on existing phones.

Although placed in “strategic locations,” Hill argues that in order for phones or other emergency devices to be viable “they have to be visible.” Few people on campus appear to know of their existence. If this is the case, their effectiveness in an emergency would be limited.

“I might feel a little more comfortable if we had blue lights because I’d know we had a system set up and it would help with response time,” Alli Shultes ’15 said.

Hill is adamant about the value of blue lights: “[they] are the best practice; we should be using them. Whether as a camera, a public address system, or a deterrent, if a potential perpetrator sees a blue light phone, that means the institution takes safety seriously.”

However, Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain was less certain as to the need for blue lights. “Perception [of security] is a big deal, there’s no question about that, [but] it’s always been a question of where to put our resources and whether it’s the most effective approach […] I don’t think we’re leaning yet [towards purchasing],” he said.

Students like Sophia Frantz ’16 are also unsure of their benefit.  She says the lights probably wouldn’t help her to feel safer. “I think it’s just the mentality,” she said. “I have an innate fear of walking alone in the dark.”

From Resident Advisor Eric Verhasselt’s ’13 perspective, the investment in blue lights would also be unnecessary because his residents frequently travel in groups. Some, like Nick Witchey ’15, don’t see their need at all. “I walk around campus at two am and feel completely safe,” he said.

When asked about them, Kristina Kronauer, a Bryn Mawr senior, said “those emergency blue lights… [aren’t] ever used.”

Hill estimates the cost at “around thirty thousand dollars per light with a camera and public notification system.” Ideally, he wants to install fifteen lights around campus over the course of three to four years. Haverford has at least forty; Bryn Mawr has approximately fifty.

“If [blue lights] were cost-effective, they would be worthwhile. Thirty thousand dollars is not cost effective,” Liz Tawa ’15 said.  Others, including Alli Shultes ‘15, changed their opinions after hearing about the expense.

Blue lights and other security plans will be discussed further before a decision is made.

“[Blue lights] are embedded in a master plan that we’re hoping to finish in the spring,” said Hain, “[and then] we’ll know more about cost and prioritization.” The Master Plan will also consider various other measures including electronic access to dorms and the use of smartphones for security purposes.

“It’s a pretty safe campus right now, and we want to keep it that way,” Hain said.


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