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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
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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?


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Photo of Colin Willox

Great share Karolle.

On my campus we also had something called SWHAT (Student Walk Home Attendant Team), which my friend volunteered on for a year.

Anyone could get an escort (two people) home at any time of the night.

Photo of DeletedUser


Karolle, I agree! Living in the city, I've (thankfully) never had to use one of the blue call boxes, but it does provide a sense of comfort to have them on my route home as a kind of safety net. And there's a lot to be said for a feeling of comfort to help me feel more confident during my commute.

Photo of DeletedUser


Great ideas everyone!
Call boxes seem to be a bit of an outdated concept given that cellphones are so prevalent in the US, as they do not really have any more functions than a payphone. My college campus had the same system with the blue lights, and a policy that from any given emergency call box you will be able to see another call box from there. I never used them either, nor did I ever witness someone use it.
But, I like to think of them as an emergency back up plan for students on campus. That if your cellphone's battery dies or is stolen from you, there will always be a way to contact the police.
I think in low-income communities where cellphone ownership is less common, these call boxes could certainly have a place.

Photo of DeletedUser


Karolle - great observation being brought up about the boxes

I think whats interesting too is that if the boxes can't be repurposed what can be utilized to make these boxes fulfill their original purpose. Is their a more incentivized or modern solution that would encourage the call boxes original purpose.