Despite recent blue phone installations, number of emergency calls plummets

In 2014, UBC installed 19 “blue phones” on campus to improve security and emergency assistance. Today, 71 phones are strategically placed across campus, each directly connected to Campus Security’s phone line.

But even as the number of phones has grown, the number of calls made with them has sharply dropped, and the nature of the calls has shifted from security to general assistance.

The phones themselves are hard to miss — they are tall poles with a bright blue light and can easily be seen from afar.

In 2016, 21 new phones were installed, followed by an additional 31 by the start of 2017. The number of blue phones present on campus currently stands at 71 — nearly four times as many as those first installed back in 2014.

The blue phones were put in place as a response to emergency situations. However, data from Campus Security reports suggests that many students may not be using these phones for their original purpose.

Rob McCloy, executive director of Campus Security and Safety, attributed the incorporation of blue phones into the campus security network as a response to instances of security concerns back in 2013. He also acknowledged that the primary function of blue phones is no longer solely security.

“I think their original [role] was emergency, but they’ve been put into more of an assistance function too,” McCloy said. “And they serve an excellent part in that too, because when we look at what one classifies as emergency, it might not be what someone else does.”

Over the years, there has been a shift in the nature of calls made from the phones. In 2014, over 90 per cent of all calls made were “unfounded,” meaning that when officers were sent to the site, no one was there.

In 2017, only 35 per cent of calls were unfounded.

McCloy attributed the more efficient usage of these phones in part to more awareness amongst students about the purpose the blue phones serve on campus.

“I don’t think we can actually attribute it to one specific thing, but from my experience, I would say it’s basically that we’re getting information out there about what these phones are for,” he said. “People are learning what they’re actually there for, and don’t push the button unless you need it. We’re getting that training and information out there.”

Is it worth it?

Despite being used for more deliberate reasons now, the blue phones are hardly used. In 2017, there were fewer calls made from blue phones than the total number of phones on campus. This means that some phones go through the year without ever being used.

There may not be such a thing as an abundance of safety precautions for a university, but this still brings up important questions when adding in the cost factor for the blue phones.

In 2016, the cost of adding the new blue phones and updating older ones was $1.32 million. In 2017, maintenance costs for the phones were $5,100.

McCloy does not place too much importance on the indications of these statistics himself.

“I’m always careful with stats,” he said. “The effectiveness [of the phones], I don’t think is based off so much on if it’s being used. I think the effectiveness is that people are using it when they need to.”

Moving forward, while there are no specific plans in place yet to increase the number of blue phones, McCloy did say that it is an “ongoing project.”

“We’re always looking at different areas where there’s not blue phones now, we’re always looking at areas where we can increase them … If we get calls in an area that doesn’t have blue phones, maybe we need to [add more], maybe there’s something that could have been alleviated by blue phones.”

Overall, McCloy emphasized the value he sees in the blue phones’ presence on campus, be it for security purposes or even for providing non-emergency assistance to campus.

“They’re part of the whole security package that we provide to the university and I encourage people to use them, when they need to use them,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for, and they’re a fantastic tool.”