Out of the blue: Over two-year period, police responded to 49 “blue light” activations where no one was at phone or in area

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October 2, 2017

10:46 PM

The 90 “blue lights” scattered across the College of William and Mary’s campus are ubiquitous reminders of university safety measures, but the ever-growing prevalence of cell phones has rendered their role more symbolic than utilitarian.

“They’re like lamp posts,” Head of Media and Communications for Sexual Violence Prevention group 16(IX)3 Brendan McDonald ’18 said. “People just look at them and don’t give them a second thought, which means that they aren’t really used. … If you have a tool and no one’s using it, then you’re like, ‘Well, what’s the point of this tool?’”

Freestanding Emergency Call Boxes, known colloquially as ‘blue lights’ because of their illuminated blue-colored tops, were first installed at the College in the early 1990s. If an emergency arises, individuals can seek assistance by pressing the blue light’s call button.

Callers are immediately connected to the William and Mary Police Department, which sends officers to the specified blue light regardless of whether the caller verbally responds to inquiries. If the emergency situation is not immediately evident, dispatched officers conduct a thorough survey of the surrounding area.

WMPD documents calls based on the nature of the incident rather than method of communication, so there are no comprehensive statistics regarding the number of calls placed from blue lights.

The department does, however, track the number of activations where officers responded and no one was at the phone or in the area: Between Sept. 28, 2015 and Sept. 28, 2017, WMPD received 49 such calls.

“Based on our experience we can say that we do have a few emergency phone activations a year where we do render assistance to someone at that location,” Police Chief Deborah Cheesebro said in an email. “911 calls received are typically initiated via cell phones. But, the overwhelming majority of our callers use the regular WMPD phone number to reach us.”

“Based on our experience we can say that we do have a few emergency phone activations a year where we do render assistance to someone at that location,” Police Chief Deborah Cheesebro said in an email. “911 calls received are typically initiated via cell phones. But, the overwhelming majority of our callers use the regular WMPD phone number to reach us.”

This February, McDonald spearheaded 16(IX)3’s creation of a blue light map after he was assigned to create “something impactful” for a gender, sexuality and women’s studies class project. WMPD gave McDonald a list of the blue lights’ locations, and he walked around campus with a GPS tracker to accurately capture their coordinates.

McDonald found that areas frequented by tour groups, including the Mason School of Business and Sunken Garden, had multiple blue lights, while spots such as the Lake Matoaka trails had limited numbers.

“[The response to the map] been pretty positive,” McDonald said. “I think it’s been helpful for everybody to have a map like that, but again, it doesn’t help to have something if nobody is using it.”

McDonald cited two reasons for the blue lights’ low utilization: a general lack of awareness regarding the blue lights’ intended purpose, and the widespread presence of cell phones and mobile apps such as the Rave Guardian safety app, which acts similarly to the blue lights by providing a direct line to local authorities.

Still, McDonald, Cheesebro and Student Assembly Secretary of Health and Safety John Hollander ’18 all agreed that the blue lights contribute to a sense of campus safety.

“The blue light system was installed with the goal of having help within line-of-sight at all times for students,” Hollander said in an email. “It’s difficult to find a place on campus that doesn’t have a blue light nearby at this point. That carries both practical benefit (it’s easy to reach them in case of emergency) and symbolic reassurance (you can spot one if you look around in case you feel unsafe).”

Cheesebro said the lights’ physical presence actively discourages crime. When an individual presses a blue light’s call button, the titular strobe light turns on, warning assailants that help is on the way, as well as attracting the attention of any passersby.

The lights also provide a heightened sense of security, as their presence on campus reminds potential victims and assailants alike that assistance is just a button away — and, unlike cell phones, the lights won’t run out of battery when they’re needed most.

“There can be poor cell phone service in remote parts of a campus,” Cheesebro said, “and cell phones may be low on a charge. … Many people can become distraught if involved in an incident, making it difficult to dial phone numbers.”

“There can be poor cell phone service in remote parts of a campus,” Cheesebro said, “and cell phones may be low on a charge. … Many people can become distraught if involved in an incident, making it difficult to dial phone numbers.”

Despite these benefits, some schools have opted to revamp or discontinue their blue light systems. In early 2016, the University of Colorado-Boulder removed its blue lights, and the school’s police chief noted that more than 90 percent of the calls received from blue lights were pranks or hang-ups.

Around the same time, Indiana University-Bloomington’s student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, reported that veteran police officers could only recall four legitimate blue light calls in the last 20 years –– but in the last 10 years, the police department received more than 4,600 blue light calls.

The IDS investigation cited costs associated with the campus’ 56 blue lights, including between $12,000 and $15,000 in annual upkeep and about $4,200 for the installation of one new light.

Comparatively, Cheesebro said the College’s maintenance costs are minimal. WMPD conducts emergency phone checks every Monday, and faulty phones are repaired the following day.

McDonald said he doesn’t anticipate the College removing its blue lights, as this would be expensive and prohibitive to students who don’t own cell phones. He and other members of 16(IX)3 have discussed alternative solutions, such as replacing the blue lights with a modernized system, but they decided each option has its downsides.

In the end, McDonald said the most promising solution is raising awareness of the blue lights beyond their physical presence on campus.

“From a practical standpoint, just telling [orientation aides] to tell people about the blue [lights] is the most efficient [solution],” McDonald said. “If you’re not having freshmen coming in and being told about them, then there’s no point in having them. … I never heard about them until I walked around campus and looked for them.”

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About Author

Meilan Solly

Chief Staff Writer Meilan Solly '18 is an English major in the W&M/University of St Andrews Joint Degree Programme. Previously, she served as editor of The Saint, St Andrews' student newspaper, and an editorial intern at Smithsonian and Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazines.

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