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Blue-light call boxes add to campus security measures

An emergency blue-light call box outside the Ohio Union on Ohio State's campus.
Renee Fox
An emergency blue-light call box outside the Ohio Union on Ohio State's campus.

Blue-light call boxes are scattered along the walkways of most universities in the United States.

At Ohio State University, they may only make up a small percentage of total calls made to campus police, but they still serve a role in a myriad of campus security measures.

The boxes are most frequently used when someone doesn’t have their cell phones with them or aren’t sure how to reach campus police dispatch, said Matt Wolfzorn, senior systems and operations manager for the university’s department of public safety.

“They’re used quite frequently in our medical center area. We get a lot of calls of just for general assistance for auto lockouts, jumpstarts. They’re used in a lot of applications where people don’t know our phone number, so it’s a lot of visitors to campus, patients in the hospital things like that. And, they’re also used quite frequently in rec sports areas where people aren’t carrying their cell phone, you know they’re on a soccer field or they’re riding their bike through campus, those types of situations where they don’t have a cell phone to reach out to us,” said Wolfzorn.

The last time the Bureau of Justice Statistics checked in 2012, they found 92 percent of all campuses use the boxes.

The boxes are reminiscent of the nearly-extinct payphone, with a few differences.

“The emergency blue-light phones are a call box, essentially it’s an 8-foot-tall pole with a blue light on top of it and has a telephone component to it. And you just walk up to it and there’s a red button you push and it initiates an emergency call to us at OSU Public safety,” said Wolfzorn.

Wolfzorn said OSU uses about 200 call boxes in strategically located areas on campus and near campus. The call boxes cost more than $9,500 each to install and have recurring costs for things like electricity.

Whenever the university builds, renovates or changes pathways, the placement of call boxes are considered as a part of the bigger construction project, Wolfzorn said.

“We work with IT across campus, it’s really done as part of construction projects, we’re not actively looking at spaces and saying, ‘there’s a need for a blue light phone,’” he said.

According to data provided by campus police, from 2019 through 2021, about 70 percent of calls that came through on a OSU blue-light phone resulted in campus police dispatching assistance. Fewer than 20 percent of those cases resulted in police or medics assisting in some way.

Campus police took about 50,000 total calls last year, and 915 calls came through on the call boxes. Of those calls, units were dispatched 578 times. In 112 of those cases, officers or medics were able to help in some way.

Some of the calls that come through are “hang-ups,” meaning someone pressed the button but didn’t stay on the line. In those cases, officers go to check the location.

Wolfzorn says they are merely one element of campus security.

“We have a number of resources we use for safety and security across campus, emergency blue-light phones being one of them,” he said.

A blue light call box on the OSU campus.
Renee Fox

Wolfzorn says there are also personal alarms, burglary alarms, apps, building access cards and security cameras.

But, the call boxes fit a unique need.

“This is an older technology, they’ve been in place on campus for many, many years. However, they still have a really good application where someone isn’t carrying their cell phone with them,” Wolfzorn said.

And, the campus is looking into adding security cameras to the phones to add another element of safety to their design.

A fourth-year student of neurobiology at Ohio State University, Olivia Racette said as a woman she feels she has to take extra precautions to protect herself, especially at night. But police patrols, bright lights and other deterrents like the call boxes make her feel more secure.

Knowing the boxes only take “the push of a button,” is comforting, she said.

Racette said just seeing the blue light nearby might make someone think twice before trying something criminal.

She hasn’t had to use one yet.

But, ”If there was a moment I didn’t feel safe, I would go up to it and push,” she said.

Wolfzorn said that is exactly what campus police want people to do.

“Don’t hesitate to use them. They’re here for providing service for the campus community. They are listed as emergency phones, but they’re used for many different services, he said.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.