OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign up, Login or Learn more

Are emergency call boxes even useful anymore?

Emergency call boxes are standard fixtures throughout many university campuses in the U.S. To what extent do they promote safety on college campuses? How successful might they be in promoting safety in low-income urban areas?

Photo of Karolle Rabarison
7 10

Written by

Emergeny call boxes are standard fixtures throughout many university campuses in the U.S. (and elsewhere?). A call box usually has two features: one-touch dial to connect with campus safety police and a light (typically blue) to make the box stand out at night.

Not once did I ever use a call box in college. That was my first thought when I started considering whether these emergency call boxes make areas safer or feel safer. In times when I was out late and wanted a ride to my apartment, I used my mobile phone to request an escort from campus police. With the proliferation of mobile phones, it seems these call boxes are just about useless nowadays. (Some highways in the U.S. have similar fixtures, and some states are making moves to get rid of them because of low to zero usage.)

But I was wrong. 

The reality: Not once did I use a call box in college  to call for help.  But now I remember many nights when I walked alone back to my apartment and chose my route by following walkaways that were near the blue lights of call boxes – they were like beacons in the night.

As many have pointed out, lighting makes a huge difference for neighborhood safety, but here I'm not talking about just any lighting. My college campus was well lit throughout, but I – instinticvely, subconsciously – was drawn to the blue lights. Why? The obvious explanation is that I associated the blue lights with police or security presence, which in turn I associated with safety.

Note that the second association would not hold true in communities/countries where police had a reputation for corruption or incompetence. But in places where police presence is a positive, I wonder: Do those blue lights deter people with criminal and/or violent intent, for the same reason that I drifted towards them? – I think yes. 
  • How might similar fixtures in a densely populated low-income urban area change the perception or reality of safety? 
  • In cities where the community would not trust police to be helpful, what if call boxes didn't connect to the police but to an helpline or neighborhood-watch type of organization?
  • If the boxes are less useful for calls (because many have personal phones), what other features might they have in addition to the light that would be helpful for someone feel unsafe, or someone experiencing or witnessing an emergency/violence/suspiscious activity?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Parnasri Ray Choudhury

Dear Karolle: So nice to connect with you and read about your achievements. To me you are indeed a "champion" not just in community actions but also in story telling section, you seem to observe a lot from the community, narrate them so beautifully.Each and every idea you shared on this thread is unique.

The word emergency grabs my natural attention, I'm glad you picked up this perishing yet one of the most useful age old means of emergency call safety. Might be a dying technology to many or even for the state governments, but for the working women coming home at late hours in Indian semi-urban or traditionally old metros cities like Mumbai or Kolkata, these emergency
call boxes still comes handy, contemporary, and best alternate option.

Your narrated it so crisp, practical, can't stop applauding, referring this for building upon one of my ideas on this platform. Wish to stay connected.

Thanks a lot.

View all comments