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OU to maintain blue emergency phones across Norman campus after OSU announces removal of similar system

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A blue emergency phone. A university spokesperson said OU may begin to review the utility of maintaining the emergency phone systems present across all three OU campuses, including 246 installations on the Norman campus alone.

Several generations of OU students have passed through the soft blue glow of the Norman campus emergency telephone system. 

Before cell phones were common, the system was a security blanket during OU students’ late-night trips across campus.

Originally installed before 1983, according to OU Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith, the emergency phones have evolved since their introduction to campus. Some of the older phone systems consist of true telephones that users must pick up to connect with the OU Police Department, while the more modern installations consist of a simple red button and intercom system.

With the commonplace use of cell phones today, though, Keith said OU may begin to review the utility of maintaining the emergency phone systems present across all three OU campuses, including 246 installations on the Norman campus alone.

“Given the prolific use of personal cell phones, and OU’s campus-wide WiFi accessibility, the university may evaluate the blue light phone system’s future usage,” Keith said. "At this time, no decisions have been made to discontinue the use of the system."

At Oklahoma State University, there are already plans to remove a similar system, Fox 25 reported in February. 

Shannon Rigsby, OSU public information officer, said the phones will be gradually removed because of damage. Twelve of the phones were scheduled to be removed as of Feb. 13.

“We have been monitoring the phones’ usage for years,” Rigsby said. “In the decades before cell phones, the blue emergency phones were an important system on campus. Now, 99 percent of individuals from 18 to 29 own a cellphone, according to Pew Research.”

At OSU, usage of the emergency phones has resulted in few legitimate emergencies requiring campus police officers to respond.

“Over a four-year span from 2015 to 2018, there were 563 calls on the emergency phones,” Rigsby said. “Of those, there were 553 where officers responded, and no one was in the area.”

OU freshman Kelsie Johnson said the emergency phone system still provides a tangible benefit despite the widespread use of cell phones.

“Having it will still be beneficial — sometimes peoples’ phones die, or if the phone doesn’t have service,” Johnson said. “Especially if there’s an emergency … having that direct line to OUPD I feel is important. It gives you a sense of security and safety because you know they’re trying to do something to combat the negatives on campus.”

In the most extreme cases, Johnson added, it may be easier for someone in an emergency to press a button or pick up a phone rather than fumbling with their cell phone.

Human relations junior James Wilson said as long as the phone system was not an excessive financial commitment, he sees no reason the system should be phased out.

“If they don’t cost a whole lot, I think they are a good thing to have around,” Wilson said. “I guess I would have to see how often they’re used to really see their worth, but as long as they’re not super expensive, I don’t see any hurt in keeping them around.”

Keith said OU has no mechanism to track the number of calls received from the phone systems around campus, but the phones are activated for more than requesting an emergency response — callers have requested directions around campus and issued complaints about noise, campus parking and suspicious animals on campus.

“Very few activations are callers requesting an OUPD response,” Keith said.

Rigsby said exact numbers for the continued use and regular maintenance of the emergency phone system at OSU are difficult to track due to the variety of issues that can affect the systems. Burned-out lights are a simple and inexpensive fix, but the cost and difficulty of repairing a 40-year-old analog phone is different from repairing a new, solar-powered installation.

The complete removal of a phone installation can cost anywhere between $700 to $900 each, Rigsby said, but the phones incur a non-financial cost as well — manpower lost when officers waste time responding to illegitimate calls.

“As technology has improved and the use of cellphones has increased,” Rigsby said, “we believe it is better to invest limited budget dollars in areas that could have the greatest impact for our students’ safety.”

Rigsby said the OSU Police Department has encouraged students to stay safe through alternative means by using their personal phones. OSU currently employs the Rave Guardian safety app, which allows students to send photos of suspicious activity to campus police, request a SafeWalk if they feel unsafe crossing campus and even chat real-time with an officer.

No official decisions have been made at OU regarding the system’s future, Keith said, and all phones across campus will continue to receive regular testing and repairs where necessary.

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