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Do Emergency Blue Light Boxes Work? The History of This Campus Safety Tool

If you have visited a college or university campus in the past thirty years, the likelihood is you will have seen an emergency blue light box – a highly visible bright blue pillar that connects students to campus security with the press of a button. Ten years ago, they were installed in most of the nation's college and university campuses. But now their numbers are declining. We look at why.

The history of emergency blue light boxes dates to the late 1980s – a time when campus security was under scrutiny due to the high-profile murder of Jeanne Clery. The demand to do more to keep students safe prompted the University of Illinois at Chicago to put out a call to innovators claiming if somebody could create something that would help enhance campus security, “we'll buy it”.

A few months later, the first prototype emergency blue light box was installed on the university's campus – a converted coin operated newsstand that could connect students with campus or city police by pressing a single button. The converted newsstand supported two-way communication and alerted police to the location of the blue light box – so called because of the blue light on top of it.

The box was considered so distinguishable that more than a hundred were installed on the university campus by the summer of 1990 - and other post-secondary institutions followed suit. According to a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 91% of colleges and universities had installed blue light boxes by the 2004-2005 academic year – that figure increasing to 92% by the 2010-2011 academic year according to a subsequent BJS report published in 2015.

Emergency Blue Light Boxes Start to Disappear

Even before the peak adoption of emergency blue light boxes in 2010-2011, some campuses were having second thoughts about their cost-effectiveness and starting to remove them. In 2004, the University of Georgia – one of the earliest adopters of emergency blue boxes – decided that the technology was outdated, the cost of replacing the blue light boxes was prohibitive, and that students were using cellphones to make emergency calls rather than the blue light boxes.

The high cost of installing and maintaining blue light emergency call boxes prompted other campuses to rethink their security strategies. With emergency blue light boxes costing up to $20,000 each to install and around $1,000 per year to maintain, many colleges and universities queried the cost-effectiveness of deploying the “inanimate guards of student safety” – particularly as they were more often used for prank calls, requests for facility maintenance, and open door assistance.

The lack of use – or misuse – of emergency blue light boxes resulted in their disappearance from many campuses. In 2009, New Mexico State University removed all its emergency blue light phones. Two years later, the University of California Davis replaced 107 blue light call phones with 18 keypad phones due to low utilization; and, in 2017, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln removed nearly 100 emergency blue light call boxes, which had cost the university $1.7 million over 15 years.

The removal of emergency blue lights prompted several minor protests, but research into their utilization found the boxes were rarely used for their intended purpose and were more a symbol of security. In 2016, Indiana Daily Student reported that the university's 56 emergency blue light call boxes had been used to make four legitimate calls in twenty years - two were fights, one was for a suspicious person, and one was for an injury in a parking lot.

Then, in 2020 - following student protests for the installation of blue light boxes along Fraternity Drive – the University of Florida's student newsletter conducted a survey among local post-secondary campuses to find out how frequently the emergency blue boxes were used. The survey uncovered a considerable lack of emergency use among its own blue light emergency call boxes and those on neighboring campuses:

  • Of 508 blue light activations at the University of Florida between January 2017 and January 2019, only 14 (2.7%) required police action, and only one of these was an emergency.
  •   At the University of Central Florida – which has 260 emergency call boxes throughout its campus – 6% of activations required “assistance”, the majority for vehicle assistance.
  •   It was a similar story at the University of South Florida (90 boxes) and the University of West Florida (50 boxes), where less than 1% of blue light box activations required any action.

[RELATED BLOG]: Blue Lights Versus A Campus Safety App: What's the Real Cost?

The Impact on Campus Safety of Fewer Emergency Call Boxes


It is difficult to determine how fewer emergency call boxes has impacted campus safety due to the underreporting of campus crimes. Therefore, although data from the National Center for Education Statistics implies the trend for most type of on-campus crimes is on a downward trajectory there's no way of telling how accurate the data is. Indeed, the increase in reported forcible sex offenses could easily be attributable to an increase in reporting rather than an increase in offenses.

One of the reasons why forcible sex offenses may be reported more often now than it was ten years ago is the increased deployment of student safety apps. According to the National Center for Campus Public Safety “one of the advantages of mobile apps is that students may feel more comfortable with texting or communicating with campus safety and law enforcement officials through the apps instead of calling, which may be an intimidating task”.

A further advantage of student safety apps is that data from reported offenses can be analyzed more easily to determine which campus crimes are happening where, so additional resources can be deployed to prevent repeat offenses and reduce campus crime overall. Therefore, while student safety apps may not be as visible as emergency blue light boxes – and may not have the same deterrent factor as emergency blue light boxes - they can have a greater impact on campus safety.

[CASE STUDY]: Missouri S&T Strengthens Campus Safety Through Community Police,  Rave Guardian

Better Protect Your Campus with Student Safety Apps

Although there are many different types of student safety apps available, it was recently reported by businesswire.com that the Rave Guardian student safety app “has been deployed more than all other campus safety apps combined”. If you would like to find out more about why Rave Guardian is the nation's leading student safety app, you are invited to get in touch with our team of campus safety experts and request a free demonstration of the app in action.

In addition to demonstrating the app's ease of use, our team will be happy to explain how Rave Guardian can be integrated with other campus safety solutions in order to provide a unified approach to campus security. Thereafter, if you have any questions about developing a unified approach, our team will be happy to answer them and organize further demonstrations to illustrate how unified campus security can significantly enhance student safety on and off campus.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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