40 emergency phones on IU campus get little use

More than 40 phone boxes marked by glowing blue lights and bold white letters spelling out “emergency” dot the Indiana University campus.

With the press of a red button, the phones provide a direct line to the IU Police Department in the event of an assault or other emergency. But IUPD Chief Keith Cash said officers have never responded to any assault-type cases that were reported through the devices.

“It is rare we get an emergency type call on these,” Cash said.

Fifty cases of forcible sex offenses and aggravated assaults occurred on campus property between 2008 and 2011. None of these crimes were reported through the emergency phones.

The phone boxes were first installed in 1990, when the IU Commission on Personal Safety explored options to help thwart assaults on campus, IU Parking Manager Doug Porter said. About 40 of these phones are now on campus, according to the Enrollment and Student Academic Bulletin.

Parking Operations helps fund the phones, because a large number of them are in campus parking lots. Porter said each one costs $5,000 to purchase and another $5,000 to install.

That’s more than $400,000-worth of emergency phones that are rarely used during emergencies.

But the phones do have other purposes.

Along with the direct 911 line to IUPD, the boxes also feature a full keypad, so local calls may be placed. This function can be used to call a roommate if a student is locked outside her apartment or to call the Safety Escort service for a ride.

The boxes are also designed to act as a crime deterrent. Whenever an emergency call goes out, the blue light on top of the box becomes a strobe, flashing repeatedly until officers respond to the scene.

Chief Cash said students have also found another use for the phones: prank calls. Of the 314 calls the IUPD has received from the emergency phones since January 2011, 149 were hang-ups.

Students say they aren’t sure how effective any of the phones’ features really are, particularly with the widespread use of cellphones. But cellphone batteries can die, Porter said, and the emergency phones could come in handy if a student’s car has a flat tire, for example.

“A driver may not need to call 911, but they can call a friend or AAA, and that makes the situation much safer,” Porter said.

Junior Doug Read, who often walks on campus after dark because of an evening Spanish class, said the phones demonstrate that the university cares about students’ safety, but he still doubted their effectiveness.

“I don’t see how they would really make a difference,” he said, adding that he’s not sure if there are enough phones in obvious locations.

Despite the glowing blue lights, the phones do apparently slip by some students. Senior DeAmber Jaggers said she wasn’t aware of the emergency phones until last week.

Jaggers said she doesn’t think there would be time to stop and use an emergency phone in the middle of being followed or assaulted.

“If you do have time to use them, the emergency can’t be that much of an emergency,” Jaggers said.

Originally published in the Bloomington Herald-Times.