Phoney emergencies

Marcus Clem | Collegio Reporter

When someone uses one of the emergency pedestal phones on campus, the university police rush to respond. Most of the time when they get there, though, no one is there.
According to university police

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, all but five, out of the dozens of calls in the last semester, have been nothing more than would-be pranksters or people in no need of aid, who activate the phones to see what happens.

Front panel of an emergency post.

Front panel of an emergency post.

“People are going to be childish,” said Tyler Edwards, Student Government Association campus affairs director and senior in international business and Spanish.
“This is a public university, and people are going to be stupid and drunk and play idiotic tricks like that. I personally feel like the advantage outweighs the negative implications of those people. I believe that most people know it’s stupid to falsely push that red button.”
Most of the cost of the phones is associated with the false reports and the expense of responding to them. New installations of emergency pedestal phones cost about $10,000 including the device, parts and labor. After that, because the device is essentially a simple telephone, maintenance is a non-issue other than the occasional changing of the blue light bulb, which costs $20-40, Edwards says.
Mike McCracken, director of university police and parking services, says the phones serve an important purpose in promoting safety and making students and their families believe in campus security. Still, the abuse can be a nuisance.
“I am not saying that they are bad. I support having them, but there are other things that are just as important and effective,” McCracken said.
McCracken says even though most of the times the call is made turn out to be pranks, they still respond to every single one.
“Whenever that red button is pressed, we have to go,” he said. “It can be disruptive. On certain days there’s quite a few calls that come in, up to 5 or 6 in a day. An officer always has to go check on that.”
Abusers usually push the red activation button on the phone and walk away before the dispatcher answers. These incidents are treated like ordinary 911 hang-up false alarms, and police must rush to the scene prepared to handle any situation, McCracken says. He says even when it seems evident that the call is false, the case is regarded the same as any other until responders arrive.
“There’s always a potential need for those phones, and so as far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter how many false vs. legitimate calls we get, because we are going to respond to all of them,” McCracken said.
Edwin Stremel, senior in automotive technology, says that the costs created by the abuse are outweighed by their benefits.
“I think the phones are definitely worthwhile,” he said. “Pushing the button falsely is a waste, but the police checking it out anyway in that situation isn’t one, because the costs of not responding could be a lot higher. What happens if they say ‘oh, it’s just another prank,’ and then not go and something terrible results?”
No one has ever been caught abusing the system, but McCracken says abusers will be treated the same as anyone who pulls a fire alarm without cause.
Such persons can be charged with raising a false alarm, be fined varying amounts and required to compensate authorities for the cost of responding. Multiple recurrences of this misdemeanor charge can result in jail time. If emergency responders are injured en route to the site of the alarm, additional criminal and civil liabilities can also be incurred.
The trouble has caused police to examine options to deter abuse, such as placing several CCTV cameras cover the locations of pedestal phones. However, McCracken says it can be difficult to discern evidence from these cameras for the purposes of abuse prosecution. He says the same problem also exists with the proposed installation of cameras into the pedestals themselves. That option, which has been implemented on a few college campuses throughout the nation, carries significant expense, McCracken says.
The abuse problems aside, the pedestals are likely to stay, and more may actually be installed in the foreseeable future. That was the recommendation of Student Government Association (SGA), whose Senators voted unanimously last month to ask university police to put a new pedestal behind the stretch of pavement between Shirk Hall and Axe Library. SGA participates in an annual event known as the Light Walk where, accompanied by a police officer, they walk around campus after dark and identify safety concerns.
“It’s just a recommendation,” said Sydney Ward, SGA vice president. “The police with their knowledge of their budget and revenue, which is based on all kinds of factors, will decide when they can purchase new security upgrades.”

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