Subscriber Discussion

Are Cell Phones Making Emergency Call Stations Obsolete?

There are a number of online articles of universities and other campuses removing these poles as they are not providing the return on investment they expected along with receiving a very low number of actual emergency calls. Others point to the fact that the population overwhelmingly has cell phones making this product obsolete. 

Did you ask code blue about this trend during your interview?

NOTICE: This comment was moved from an existing discussion: Code Blue Emergency Communications Profile

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1.) I hope someone can define for me what the "return on investment" looks like for an emergency call station. Do they get extra money based upon the number of actual emergency calls they get?

2.) Based upon what I have seen (primarily in university environments), the bigger issue with these units and part of what is driving it is the often astronomical cost of maintenance and upkeep, usually due to poor installation practices from the beginning. If units were properly installed originally, they can be maintained and even replaced at a much more reasonable cost. Instead, universities are having to spend gobs of money to replace all of the infrastructure, stanchions, and everything, so they are choosing to just rip them out instead and look at other solutions.

3.) To directly answer the question, yes, there are some major disruptions about to happen in this market, primarily within higher education. There are products that have been out there for a little while that are starting to get major traction there.

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In reference to your second point, that is what happens in plan and spec low-bid jobs. 

An engineering firm is paid a small amount of money to design something they do not really understand because they don't deal with these systems every day. And they are not taking the time to learn it, because it was low bid and they are lucky to break even.

An electrical contractor subs the lowest bid he gets from an integrator. They both cut corners and give the bare minimum in the spec just to make 10% on the job.

 

 

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Actually, this did come up in our discussion. They stated that even with high numbers of cell phone users there are still benefits for help points/emergency phones:

  • Readily accessible emergency phones with single-button operation can be easier for people to use than pulling out their cellphone, unlocking it, and dialing
  • Immediate response in the form of optional strobe lights can be effective at causing attackers to flee, more so than a cellphone.
  • Not every use case is an emergency, help phones can be used to ask for directions, or summon non-emergency help (dead battery in a parking garage). Further, for these localized situations, where the person likely wants to speak directly with campus/university police the call station is easier/faster than looking up the right number to call.
  • The organizations deploying these often have their own police/medical response, and can often respond to a call from an emergency station faster than if the call first went to 911 and then to the campus (most cellphone users would likely dial 911 before a local campus police number in an emergency.

I do think that cell phones are impacting the market for the emergency phone stations, but I have not heard of campuses removing them.  Do you have a link to a story on this?

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The prevalence of cell phones has had a major impact on decisions regarding these phones at higher ed institutions.  I am aware of a few campuses removing the "blue light" phones entirely. This was done either through attrition (remove when it fails) or by just pulling them all out at once.

Other higher eds have chosen not to expand what they have - they will maintain their current inventory but will not install additional units.

There are recurring conversations about the value of the phones.  Some institutions want to remove them because of the recurring costs associated with maintenance and the fact that they are not being used.  There is usually push back on this from student affairs groups who see the phones as a value from a parent's perspective (perception that a campus with phones is safer than one without).

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Cell phones are not a crime determent and further people at risk versus a visible and high profile emergency call station with blue light, cameras and even a high power speaker for mass notification.

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Most of the "blue light" placements I have seen in my tours of various campuses do NOT have cameras or speaker arrays.  In addition, the older implementations of the "blue light" phones are the only ones these days that tend to have the light on all the time.  Most newer placements are dark until the button is pressed. 

The light was a beacon, and the absence of it only makes it harder to identify where a placement is when one might need it most - in a dark, remote area.

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This is a very interesting topic. We have a project that is deciding very soon if it should have emergency call stations based on the cell phone advantages and sometimes disadvantages. I'm in the corner that we should have Emergency call stations if anything else as a deterrent and that the Police monitor that area. With cell phones there is no guarantee.

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I work in higher education and can say for certain that all of the arguments above - both for an against - are frequent topics of conversation regarding the "blue light" phones.

They are costly to install.  They are costly to maintain.  If a university/college has them, they darn well better make sure they work (liability exposure if they don't). 

They are a safety feature that parents are interested in, and parents often ask if we have them.  Students are barely aware of them, and would likely use their cell phone instead. 

We have had them in place since at least 2007.  We have never had an emergency activation.  We have had a few calls for keys (and phone) locked in cars, and a few calls for directions.  In a conversation a few years ago with a much larger university emergency manager, that institution has similar experience with their emergency phones.  They had never had an emergency activation on one of the phones.  Pizza delivery drivers used them occasionally, though.

So . . . do we need them?  Yes.  They do provide a sense of security to parents who are entrusting their child(ren) to our care in a situation where it may be that child's first time away from home for an extended period.  The phones provide an added layer of safety in that if a phone is locked in a car after hours, or if a phone is "dead", the individual has an option for summoning help.

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Here are a couple of articles related to the topic:

http://www.timescall.com/longmont-local-news/ci_29264057/cu-boulder-removing-outdated-campus-emergency-phones

 https://securitytoday.com/Articles/2014/01/28/Moving-Beyond-the-Blue-Light-Smartphones-Improve-Facility-Safety.aspx?Page=1

When I spoke to return on investment, if you put in a $10k emergency communications poles (figure rounded up to include installation) and no one uses it except for the pizza delivery guy, keys locked in car, for directions or other non-emergency issues is the blue light pole really worth the cost in not only install but maintenance, or are you getting a return on your investment?  

As End User#3 stated above maybe ROI can be calculated in other ways such as it is a strong desire of parents to see these poles on campus and they are more likely to send their children to the university if they see a ton of these poles. This ROI is a little trickier to measure but still it would be an ROI.  

To me if the emergency communications poles are not being utilized perhaps the money is better invested in other tech such a smart analytics (deep learning) they would show an abnormality and auto alert the operator. 

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I hold that the emergency phones have a place in the overall safety/security plan.  Institutions should use them (sparingly in my opinion) in conjunction with other layers such as:

  • security/police patrols and visible presence
  • safety awareness training for students and employees
  • security cameras
  • access controls
  • exterior lighting standards ("security" lighting)
  • landscape management (landscape design done with security considerations)
  • notification apps (if equipped to monitor and respond)
  • promoting a culture of "see something, say something"

I would urge administrators to consider whether funding emergency phone installations would be of greater benefit than focusing on one or more of the other safety/security items listed above.

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What about those 'see something, say something' apps like elerts?

Emergency call stations are stationary, while cell phones with direct connections to support and/or emergency services are not.  You have to get to a call station to sound an alarm - with a cell phone, not.

Playing a loud sound and flashing a blue light when something is already happening can't really be described as deterrents in the classic sense.  They are alerting tools - just like apps are. 

IMO, I think these kinds of apps are a stronger alerting solution than emergency call stations.

 

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The apps certainly have a place in the overall safety and security portfolio.  However, the institution needs to be sure it has the staffing and capabilities in place before implementing the apps.

Most of those apps can send a notification to the institution, and the institution is responsible for monitoring those messages.  That means it needs a 24/7/365 monitoring center (such as police/security dispatch) and access to a police or security force that is capable of responding in a timely manner. 

Some of the apps can dial 911 and may bypass the campus police/security dispatch center and go to the county/city call center.  That call center may or may not notify the campus police while at the same time dispatching the county/city resources.  This may or may not delay a response.

I think that the blue light phones have a place in the overall security/safety program.  The apps do as well, if an institution is equipped to manage and monitor them. 

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There are a number of smart phone apps that can replace Emergency Call stations.  We use Live Safe, which allows the user to call 911 (anywhere), Call or Text security directly.  Allows the user to report tips anonymously.  Allows the user to send photos, video or audio to security.  It also functions as a "safe walk" , or actual escort request.  It has a map for the posting of incidents.  You can "push" notifications to users.  Absolutely a free download for the users.

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Those type apps are definitely a good tool in the overall safety/security program, but I do not think they are a replacement.  A supplement, yes.  As I mentioned somewhere above, those apps have their own set of limitations and resource requirements.

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I have not seen any limitations or problems with resource limitations.  You need someone to monitor the blue lights and someone to monitor the Live Safe event.  The only problem is if your entire computer network went down.  The app still gives the users the ability to call security or 911 if that happens.  Please explain what other limitations or resources you are referring to.   But if your network goes down, the blue lights are useless.  The app also allows you to provide informational resources such as emergency procedures, or the location of vital services and phone number.

It has one distinct advantage over a blue light.  If you truly are being attacked, you have to find or run to a blue light.  

The cost to the organization is far less than a single blue light.

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Stanley, let's say someone is in trouble and does not have the app? That strikes me as a risk and downside vs a physical station. Am I missing something or?

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The resource requirements can be a huge limitation.  Universities/colleges with small police/security departments may not have the resources to monitor an app interface in real time, especially if there is something else going on (active calls for service, etc.). 

What happens if an institution implements an app and their security office isn't a 24/7/365 operation?  If a person is trying to text a security office that isn't open on a holiday or after a certain time, the text doesn't do any good. 

The blue light phones either call 911 or they call the campus police/security office (that would be manned 24/7).  They generally come through as a call that someone has to answer - or in our case, if not answered by a certain number of rings, it rolls over to the county 911 call center.

The app monitoring interface runs on a computer that may or may not be in use for other things as well.  Does it give an audible alert?  Was the dispatcher on the phone/radio with someone else at the time and didn't hear it?  Does the app stay in the background or does it try to come to the front when an alert is indicated?  Was the dispatcher trying to enter data into their CAD (computer aided dispatch) system and missed the alert? 

As I noted above, calling 911 - either directly or through an app - will likely initiate an emergency response.  The question is, who will that response be from?  Campus police?  County police?  City police?  State police?  What is the difference in response times for off-campus agencies?  Universities that have their own police/security forces may not get the initial dispatch call from the county/city 911 call center.  It depends on many factors - the relationship between the institution's police force and the surrounding jurisdiction, the experience level of the 911 dispatcher (do they know to dispatch the university police based on an address?), and several other considerations.

Those are just examples.  Capabilities vary by institution.  A one-size-fits-all approach cannot work for everyone.  Blue lights are more appropriate for some institutions.  Apps may be more appropriate for others.  A layered approach may be an option for some.

As for the cost, I've seen the pricing for one of Live Safe's competitors and I could install one "blue light" phone each year for the cost of the service agreement. 

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More importantly, what if they don't have a cellphone? or they forgot to carry it.  However, it is extremely rare today that kids don't have/carry their cell phone.  More importantly, can you mandate that someone put the app on their phone.  One clear advantage of the app, is that if the person is being forced away from the location (kidnapping/abduction), the app would allow the law enforcement community to track their location via GPS.  If they made it to the blue light and were kidnapped, all you might have is the last known location.

It would be cheaper for the organization to give everyone a limited use cellphone than it would be to install blue lights at 10,000 + per light.

 

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I agree that most youth today have a mobile phone.  I would estimate that around 95-98% of our student body has one.  A small number of students who do have cell phones do not have "smart" devices, however.  That is probably another 3-5%.  (numbers based entirely on my unscientific but informed observations and estimations garnered from various projects, committees, etc. that I have worked on or with)

That means that somewhere between 5% and 10% of our students (and likely a similar percentage of employees) do not have the capability to utilize an app.

The recommendation of handing out phones to those who don't have it becomes another issue.  We are a public (state) institution.  We cannot do that.  There are laws that would impede such an effort.  And then there is the responsibility for what happens with that phone.  There's an emergency and the phone didn't work for whatever reason.  Who's liable?  The student used a university-issued phone for an unlawful purpose.  Who's liable?  Who pays the bills (phone service)?  If students are responsible, who enforces that the student pays?  If the institution is responsible, who provides the funding for that recurring expense?  It is even legal in the institution's state for it to provide the phones?  Administering such a phone program would be a nightmare and would wind up costing far more than $10,000 - it would take an FTE (or two) with attached salary and benefits package.  That's recurring costs, vs. the one-time costs (maintenance excluded) for a blue light phone.

And lastly, an institution cannot mandate a student (or employee for that matter) download and use an app.  Aside from being next to unenforceable, the management/administration of such a mandate would wind up exceeding the costs of installing phones.

Again, I think the best solution is a layered approach that includes both the emergency call phones, apps, training, security presence, etc.

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I think the for and against for emergency phones arguments are have points, but any company in this market should definitely NOT put all their eggs in the emergency phone basket. That's why Code Blue has their MNS (Mass Notification System). We did a pretty interesting integration with it couple years ago and a lot of it was IT related technology (SIP, SMS, CAP, VoIP-PBX) and little traditional security technology (I/O level integration).

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Did the removal of 99% of the payphones negatively impact crime reporting? Cell phones made them obsolete too.

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Also, Code Blue has an option for a hybrid approach with a mobile app that can generate alarms within the same software as the pole lights if the user is within the campus geofence, and to other recipients if the user is away from the campus.

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They need to make a GSM version station and probably already do. It is such a pain to trench, rigid conduit, aquaseal cable all these locations.

I say make a GSM model with a wifi backup and power both with Solar already.

Also why does it have to be some huge $2500 stanchion tube? Just put a pole up and stop with the 100 pound aluminum wall mount enclosures in parking garages already.

Write a phone app that beacons everyone running that same app while on campus. Your face, phone and location is now available to anyone who can assist, with a corresponding beacon to the police. Think APP911.

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There are cellular ("GSM") models available.  We have a mixture of cellular and PBX.  Cellular has been used where it was not cost effective to trench for phone lines or where phone lines were not available.  Solar and cellular combos have been used where neither copper phone lines or power is readily available or practical.  The solar option has been our most problematic. 

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Do you really want your risk mitigation plans based upon a cell phone or the reliability of the provider network?  When "Boom" happens everyone pulls out a phone and begins either a live Facebook stream, snapchat or some other social media transmission over the cell/data network.  Reliability is out the window, the cell/data network is now down. How can Emergency Operations depend on this as a means to communicate with their students, visitors, employees, constituents, etc?  What if the visitor or employee doesn't have the app?  A reliable communication device with the highest level of intelligibility on reliable campus network wins this argument.  You have to plan as though no one has a cell phone because you can plan on them not working after the "boom."    

What if the campus purchased "Blue Lights" that did not provide 24/7 full supervision? (And I don't mean someone walking around campus and testing them once or twice a year.) At the same time if you can't understand what the person in the SOC is saying and the person at the stanchion can clearly hear the instructions, now what?  What do you say to someone that pressed the help button and it isn't operational?  How will their lawyer use this against the institution; sign on the stanchion says: "Out of order, keep running!"  

Emergency Operations Planning using ICS All Hazards approach has two significant bullets that the security industry has seemed to forgotten or never learned:

  • Communications
  • Resources and Assets

Public Address, Intercoms, "Blue Lights," Help Points, Phone Systems, Radio Systems, Elevator Communications, Parking Control Systems and similar, should  all be considered resources for unified communications when an event occurs. All of these resources and assets should be considered in All-Hazards planning.  What's more the SOC should not have to touch multiple "master stations" to communicate to all of these resources.  Institutions are now drilling and testing how long it takes to get a critical message to everyone during an event.  How long is acceptable? 

Adding more cameras and analytics is not the answer either.  Coming out of the video space I always thought the more cameras you have the greater the situational awareness.  What I have since learned is you need to be able to "See Something" AND "Say Something" or it's worthless to have all the video.

The concept of “All Hazards” Emergency Management essentially means that providers must be prepared to address the ever-expanding scope of emergencies that could potentially impact a campus/community.  Incident Action Plans (IAP) also include "Resource Typing."  During a disaster (boom), an emergency manager knows what capability a resource needs to have to respond efficiently and effectively.  Locking or unlocking doors, eyes on the scene and clear reliable communications are a must.  A "blue light" stanchion could and should be part of the resources the SOC can depend on to Alert and Inform those in harm's way.  

Maybe it is time to start thinking out of the box on how to use all communications before during and after an All Hazards event.  Much more could be said . . . 

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