Blue light special: Campus call boxes increase safety

Florida A&M University Department of Public Safety is making strides to facilitate a safer nighttime campus environment.

The University recently installed new security lighting along Wahnish Way as part of an ongoing effort by FAMU DPS to maintain low campus crime rates.

Corporal Sherri Luke, DPS crime prevention officer, said incidents of rape, robbery and car theft have been on the decline since 2005. Luke said crime rates on campus have consistently gone down over the last three years, and security personnel intend to continue their work to maintain an overall sense of campus safety.

“We saw a rise in robberies in 2005 that was part of a rash of robberies around the city,” Luke said. “Other than that, crime has gone down.”

Working in conjunction with the new security lighting is the campus blue light call box system. According to Luke, the 55 blue lights can be found throughout campus and each callbox is within sight distance from the next closest to it. This allows for easy access to students with a valid emergency. The system, intended to function as a 911 service for students in emergency situations, provides 24-hour direct connection service to the call center.

Luke said the response times to blue light calls are swift.

“When a call comes in, an officer will immediately be dispatched and will arrive at the scene within about two minutes,” Luke said.

Security cameras are positioned on call boxes so that officers can get a visual of the caller even before an officer arrives on the scene.

The call boxes are in place to ensure student safety, however, prank calls and misuse of the call boxes by students have caused problems with the system.

“Students sometimes use the phone system to connect with DPS for personal problems, such as parking tickets or to remove a boot from their car, which can consume an officer’s time,” Luke said.

Although misuse of the system is not always a punishable offense, prank emergency calls are taken very seriously.

“We view a blue light call as a legitimate distress call,” Luke said. “If a caller calls in and says there’s an emergency when there isn’t we treat that call as a criminal offense, the same as if you called 911 for no legitimate reason.”

Luke said that most prank calls come in during orientation week and when large events are being held on campus.

Kenneth Clay, an officer of the Department of Public Safety said these prank calls take away from the manpower available for legitimate emergencies; but an officer is always sent out.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Clay said.

DPS has responded to four blue light distress calls this month. Luke said it’s hard to tell how many legitimate calls come in each month because officers will sometimes use call boxes in order to test them.

“Sometimes officers will push the button (at the call boxes) just to check on response times and that the phones are working,” Luke said.

The blue light boxes are checked at least once a month, but because of the diligence of DPS officers who perform their own random checks, they are actually tested more often.

Of the 55 blue lights all but three are in working order. A blue light that is malfunctioning is covered with a bag in order to let students know it is out of service and that the student should proceed to the next closest call box.

“There are three boxes being replaced right now,” Luke said. “But that’s just because of standard maintenance.”

Other student safety services include the campus SAFE team, FAMU PD’s Travel Plan and e2Campus.

“That’s my program; it’s my baby,” Luke said of e2Campus. The system has been in place since July 2006 and it immediately notifies students of any campus emergencies by sending mass text alerts to their personal cell phones.

Of the 13,000 students attending FAMU, 2,257 students are currently connected to the system.

Luke said getting the word out to students about e2Campus is crucial to its effectiveness.

“We’ll connect the system to registration soon so that people can opt in or out of the program,” Luke said. “We don’t want anyone saying that they didn’t know about it.”

FAMU PD’s Travel Plan, a lesser-known service, allows students to inform the police department of any trips they may be taking.

“Students just fill out a form before a trip and submit it to the police department so that if they don’t return, or if someone is looking for them, we have a record of where they were going, with whom and in what fashion,” Luke said. “Sometimes students leave town without notifying their families and this is a way of keeping track of them in case of an emergency.”

Luke said upon a student’s return the forms are shredded so that no personal information is kept by the department.

Another service offered through DPS, with collaboration from student volunteers, is the campus SAFE team. The team consists of student volunteers who serve as community watchdogs by acting as escorts to students who request added safety while on campus.

Luke said that the SAFE team is a vital resource for students but that recent funding issues threaten to end the program.

“Funding is so bad right now that if they don’t get funding soon they’ll be out of service,” Luke said. “They are funded through SGA so it depends on what student government’s priorities are for the year.”

The extensive security measures developed by DPS have left some students feeling better about their experience on campus.

Vanessa Toussant, 18, a freshman pharmacy student, said that she feels safe on campus “most of the time” but there are some areas she is still nervous to walk in at night.

“Along the nursing side of campus, it’s definitely darker at night than in other parts,” Toussant said. “I hope they put up lights there soon.”

For more information about campus safety, or to report a crime, contact DPS at 599-3256 or dial 3256 from any campus extension. FAMU DPS is located at 2400 Wahnish Way, room. 128.