Cal Poly University Chief of Police William Watton cannot remember a time when a Code Blue emergency phone prevented an emergency on campus.

However, the dispatchers at the University Police Department report that the 70-plus free-standing cylinders designed to increase campus safety are activated about three or four times per week, he said.

“This would work out to between 150 and 200 blue light calls per year or about 10 to 12 percent of total 911 calls.”

In 2008 UPD had 1,550 activations of 911, including calls from land phones, cell phones, blue lights and elevators, he said.

Every CSU campus has some version of an emergency phone and many use the Code Blue phones like those at Cal Poly.

San Jose State University Sergeant John Laws said he thinks the emergency phones make a psychological difference and help community members communicate to the police.

“I think that people do feel safer knowing that they can call the UPD quickly and easily from nearly anywhere on campus,” he said.

He added that he couldn’t recall whether one had been a life-saving factor in an emergency.

“They are not necessarily noticed and I could not possibly quantify whether or not a blue light phone made a specific difference in any situation,” he said.
The jurisdiction of the Cal Poly University Police Department includes the campus plus one mile off.

“Wherever our students are, we’ll try to be there,” Watton said.

Nearly every student carries a cell phone, which may be why the emergency phones aren’t relied upon. 911 calls from a cell phone are directed to one of several law enforcement agencies within the area, including the San Luis Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the Cal Poly University Police Department. The dispatch at the agency will then redirect the call to the appropriate agency, which Watton says takes “just a matter of seconds.”

Officers will arrive at the potential emergency within 30 seconds to one minute, he said.

The Code Blue phones typically cost $3-5,000 to install and the pedestal phone itself is about $6,000. Over the last eight years maintenance costs have been about $1,000 per year for all of the blue phones, according to Facilities Associate Director Doug Overman.

While there is no data as to whether the phones have prevented an assault, they do reassure some students on campus when at night.

Animal science junior Suzie Middlebrook said she felt uneasy being on campus at night when she first arrived at Cal Poly in fall 2007.

“Right after I came on campus there were two rapes within a couple weeks,” she said. “I was always running from blue light to blue light.”

Now she thinks the campus is safe but having more Code Blue phones installed would make her feel safer, she added.

“There are definitely some stretches where you aren’t sure where the next blue light is,” she said. “You can’t just tell a would-be assailant, ‘Excuse me sir, can you hold on a minute while I find the nearest blue phone?’”

Civil engineering junior Danh Duong doesn’t think the emergency phones make a big difference in campus safety.

“I think they’re good but I don’t feel like they’d be very effective…by the time they (the police) get there something could’ve happened.”

But the bright lights could be help to someone in trouble, he said.

“It definitely gets people’s attention, which could be all you need.”

Watton said the activations mostly come not from uneasy or panicked students but from children and visitors who are curious how the phones work. They are also activated by intoxicated partygoers, he added.

“Typically we just let give them a stern admonishment.”

But if a call is malicious, the officers will treat it like any other misreported emergency call. The penalty for abuse of 911 is up to a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months
in county jail, and all reasonable costs of any emergency response, he said.

Join the Conversation


  1. These kinds of stories that make people think about how their campus resources are being used are really interesting. Good job.

  2. While well intentioned, the emergency phones are a great example of waste and how the State spends taxpayer monies on projects that are nice to haves but not must haves.

    Cell phones are ubiquitous and they’ve been around for years, yet Cal Poly or the State decides to put money into this system. What’s more, rape and crime has never been a problem on the campus so why waste the money on this when student fees are constantly climbing.

    Twenty-five years ago and long before that, cell phones didn’t exist and Cal Poly was considered a VERY safe campus. There was no protest that something had to be done about the growing assault problem. Yet, the State decides to waste money. Not surprising.

  3. Robert – not EVERYTHING the state does is a waste of money, and I don’t think this is a waste of money.

    When these things were initially installed, cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. At this point, the $1000 per year to maintain the phones is a tiny cost – in fact, removing them would probably be relatively costly, and you can’t just deactivate them.

    The benefit of these is that the location is immediately known to police, when a newcomer to the campus might not be able to describe where they are.

    The flashing light is also a petty effective deterrent to someone who’s looking to commit a crime against someone else.

  4. I spent 5 years working for UPD. In my tenure I recall one incident where a student had cut themselves working alone in a lab on a Saturday evening. The student did not have access to a cell phone and the phone in the classroom was not working. However, the student was able to get to a blue-light phone and summon help and eventually get to the hospital.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *