Emergency phones: essential for safety or obsolete?

By John McDermott

Highly visible but sparsely used, campus emergency phones, or e-phones, are strategically placed throughout campus in order to deter crime, offer students the opportunity to report emergencies and receive the help they need. But assaults and robberies on non-University property have raised concerns about whether the e-phone system should be expanded or whether e-phones are effective at all in today’s wireless age.

Found at various kiosks, in elevators, in stairwells and at bus stops, all but several of the e-phones are on University property. However, residential areas of campus not on University-owned property do not have e-phones at their disposal. Many of these areas are home to high concentrations of students.

“That’s one of the concerns, that there is a lack of emergency phones on the northwest part of the campus district that is not University property,” said Jeff Christensen, interim executive director of the University Police Department.

The area east of Lincoln Avenue in Urbana is also of concern due to the large number of sorority houses located there, added Mark Briggs, campus risk manager for the University Police Department.

But the installation of off-campus e mergency phones would raise issues as to how extensive such a system should be.

“If the city of Champaign agreed to have us put 20 e-phones in one neighborhood, they then would be faced with the ‘Why aren’t you putting them in my neighborhood?’ issue,” Briggs said.

Megan Brown, junior in LAS, lives in the northwest portion of campus Christensen describes and admits to feeling unsafe. “Walking down Healey, I don’t feel safe at all,” Brown said.

But having never seen anyone use an e-phone and lacking knowledge as to how they work, Brown said she would rather use her cell phone when in danger.

University safety officials agree that e-phones, while helpful, are becoming increasingly less necessary to ensure campus safety.

“Every year we have a higher and higher percentage of our students carrying cell phones, and there’s nothing an e-phone can do that a cell phone can’t do,” Briggs said.

Briggs added that cell phones might be a more effective alternative to e-phones, as they are more readily available and allow the user to move while reporting an emergency.

“I’d prefer my kids to have access to a cell phone over an e-phone,” Briggs said.

Such assertions seem to suggest that e-phones are a wasteful use of University funds.

“If you asked me, ‘Is this the exact way you would choose to spend this money?’ my answer would be, ‘I don’t know,'” Briggs said.

Adding to the debate about the effectiveness of e-phones is their frequent improper use. The University categorizes e-phone calls as valid, accidental or other. Valid calls are for crimes in progress, or someone asking for directions; accidental calls are when a user acknowledges having accidentally pressed the emergency call button, and no police officer is sent to the location; and calls classified as other occur when a user does not respond after pressing the call button and cannot be found when police officer arrives at the scene.

In 2007, there were 99 valid calls, 397 accidental calls and 536 calls cataloged as other.

However, Briggs defends the University’s current e-phone policy.

“You can’t really look at it strictly from a dollar and cents standpoint,” Briggs said. “As an example, how much is it worth when a student decides to go here because they feel comfortable on campus?”