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Blue light tower malfunctions contribute to a ‘false sense of security’

Eagle investigation shows that multiple blue light towers have been malfunctioning for over a month

When American University first installed Blue Light Phone Towers on its campus in 1991, the University community celebrated the change. Now, in the wake of rising concerns for campus safety, an Eagle investigation found that eight blue light towers across campus have been malfunctioning for over a month. 

Eagle reporters first noticed that a blue tower in the East Campus parking lot was labeled “out of service” on Aug. 30. The Eagle then found seven additional blue light towers across campus with their LED lights out, none of which had signs noting any malfunctions. The Eagle investigated potential causes and legal ramifications of the malfunctions.

Blue light towers are labeled “EMERGENCY” and stationed across campus. In case of an emergency, community members can press a red button on the tower, which connects them directly with the AU Police Department, who dispatch officers to the blue light tower’s location. While waiting for help to arrive, the LED light on top will begin to flash to attract more attention to its location. According to the manufacturer, these LED lights are supposed to be on 24/7.

Blue light towers have been shown to increase awareness of campus security measures and decrease crime rates.

“Sometimes knowing that they’re there and seeing that blinding blue light in the middle of the night, I know where I could go if anything were to go wrong,” Megan Scott, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said.

Shedding light on blue light towers

On Aug. 30, the blue light tower in the East Campus parking lot had a posted sign covering its red button to note that the phone is inoperational. The posted sign was ripped and stained, making it almost illegible. Eagle reporters noticed the LED light on top of the tower was also out.

‘Out of Service’ sign covering the red button on the East Campus parking lot blue light tower.

On Sept. 29, The Eagle found seven additional malfunctioning blue light towers in the following locations across campus: East Campus on the corner of Nebraska and New Mexico Avenues, next to the Asbury Building, next to the Sports Center Annex, in the Woods Brown Amphitheater, behind the Kay Spiritual Center, across from the Media Production Center and in front of the Watkins Building.

According to an official manufacturer’s data sheet, after 50,000 hours of continual use, the LED lights on the towers will diminish to 70 percent of their original brightness. On average, LED lights don’t need to be replaced for at least twenty years.

Vincent Enriquez, a representative for Talkaphone, the manufacturer that makes the University’s blue towers, said there are three potential problems causing the LED lights to malfunction: That the chip they are installed with is malfunctioning, that they were mounted incorrectly or that there is no power reaching the entirety of the blue light tower. 

If the chip in the blue light tower is malfunctioning, then both the LED light and the security camera will be inoperational, according to Enriquez. 

Enriquez said that the LED light bulbs can’t simply be removed and replaced, “We actually have to replace the [whole] unit." 

The average cost of installing blue light towers is $15,000 per unit. It would cost a total $120,000 to replace all eight malfunctioning units. 

A blueprint from Talkaphone shows that the power cable that feeds the LED lights also feeds the security cameras directly below them.

According to Matthew Bennett, the University’s chief communications officer, the LED light on top of the blue light towers operate independently of the security camera and phone each tower has. He stated, “therefore, the phone and camera functions continue to work even if the light bulb is out of order.”

Enriquez said inoperational LED lights do not necessarily indicate that the security cameras and phones in each unit are also inoperational. 

School of Communication junior Kai Hawkins, a former supervisor and current field trainer for the University’s Public Safety Aide Program, worked alongside AUPD. Public safety aides are student workers who bridge the gap between students and AUPD on campus safety issues. Hawkings said AUPD monitors the towers’ security cameras 24/7. 

“The cameras are always working, and I know that they have several officers on standby all the time,” Hawkins said.

It is unclear whether the adjoining security cameras on the malfunctioning units are operational and, if they are functional, how the lack of light has impacted any footage recorded. The Eagle inquired about the functionality of security cameras included in the blue light towers currently malfunctioning. In a statement, Bennett did not include any specific information regarding the operational status of the security cameras on the eight towers.

Map of blue light tower locations across main campus.
Map of blue light tower locations across main campus.

On Oct. 9, after finding there was no posted signage on the seven additional blue light towers, The Eagle reached out to the University’s Internal Communications Office regarding their functionality. Also at this time, the posted sign on the East Campus parking lot blue light tower was still illegible.

Bennett wrote that of the seven blue light towers  without operational LED lights the Eagle investigation originally found, not including the East Campus parking lot tower, three of them also have inoperational phones — meaning that AUPD cannot be contacted through these towers.

These locations include: East Campus on the corner of Nebraska and New Mexico Avenues, in the amphitheater and in front of the Watkins Building. 

In Bennett’s statement, he also wrote that the tower across from the Media Production Center has a functioning phone that connects to AUPD, but that the LED light is malfunctioning. This is the only blue light tower with a malfunctioning LED light and an operational phone that the University officially acknowledged.

On Oct. 10 at 2:47 p.m. Bennett stated that these four malfunctioning blue light towers had, “a sign [that] was initially posted on the unit but was removed,” Bennett further stated that, “a new sign will be added” to each of the four malfunctioning towers. As of Oct. 10 at 4:35 p.m. three of the four blue light towers that were claimed to not be fully functional now have posted signage. 

The blue light tower still without signage is across from the Media Production Center. Bennett said this one has a malfunctioning LED light. The East Campus parking lot blue light tower has also been given a new sign, which states: “emergency phone offline pending removal.”

Bennett also claims that three of the additional seven blue light towers are “fully operational and in working order.” However, The Eagle found the LED lights on these towers remain off as of Oct. 10, meaning they have no deterrence effect. These locations include: next to the Asbury Building, next to the Sports Center Annex and behind the Kay Spiritual Life Center.

Some of the inoperational blue light towers are located in the most secluded parts of campus. Two of these towers, next to the Sports Center Annex and in the amphitheater, are the closest in proximity to each other. 

This leaves students with the options of going uphill to the blue light tower in front of Cassell Hall, through potential oncoming traffic to the blue light tower behind Battelle-Tompkins or farther into a secluded area to the blue light tower behind the Osborn Building.

With malfunctioning blue light towers in the most secluded areas of campus, there is no immediate safe haven for students in need. 

“Adding lighting to something so simple is genuinely having a huge impact on student safety,” Julia Comino, a junior in the School of Communication, said.

The Eagle also looked into a potential for tampering with the blue light towers after noticing exposed wiring. According to Bennett, “The visible wiring on the blue lights is fully shielded in weather-resistant coverings. These wires were added to the blue lights to leverage their locations across campus and enhance outdoor wireless internet connection.”

Bennett’s statement did not include details as to whether the exposed wires could have caused any of the current malfunctioning in the towers.

Richard Posch, an electrical engineer, said that whether or not the towers could have been intentionally disabled depends on a few factors.

“That depends entirely on the design of the tower,” Posch said. “Whether the wiring is accessible, and how secure the access to the wiring is.”

As of Oct. 10, the LED light on top of the East Campus parking lot blue light tower was flickering on and off, making it more noticeable at night. However, there is still a sign posted over the red button stating, “emergency phone offline pending removal”. From a distance, students could be led to believe the tower is working.

Possible legal ramifications

Steve Bienstock, senior partner at Bienstock Law, LLC and a Washington College of Law alumnus, said that the University is not liable for negligence — unless someone gets hurt.

“If a student were to run to one of these, and the light’s not on, and presses the button, and the button doesn’t work, and they are then assaulted, then it seems that the false sense of security that the University has allowed to occur could be negligence,” Bienstock said.

Blue light towers were created in response to the assault and murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in 1986. In January 1990, blue light towers were first installed on the University of Chicago campus as a prototype and quickly became a standard campus safety resource across the country.

AU first added blue light towers in February 1991 after the AU chapter of the National Organization for Women lobbied for their installation. In 2005, the University contracted Talkaphone to supply AU’s current blue light tower models.

Universities are not legally required to use blue light towers, but many see it as an unwritten rule. During the 2011-12 academic year, the Department of Justice conducted a study that found that 92 percent of all four-year colleges and universities utilized blue light towers.

Alexander Pearman, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, said that the blue light towers make him feel more safe because “they’re kind of like a visual representation of AU caring about campus safety.”

Kelley Kloncz, a former public safety aide, said AUPD communicates any systems that are not operational through their walkie talkie system. However, communications do not typically extend past the walkie talkie system, and public safety aides are kept informed mostly by public AU Alerts.

Hawkins reiterated Kloncz’s recollection of how well informed public safety aides usually are. When asked about any announcements made regarding malfunctioning towers, he said, “I haven’t received an announcement about any of them not working.”

Many legal requirements regarding campus safety stem from the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990. The Clery Act requires public and private universities to disclose specific criminal activity both on and near campus.

These statistics must be included in an annual safety report for any university that receives federal funding. Failure to comply could result in up to a $35,000 fine along with potential suspension from participating in federal financial aid programs.

AU released their Annual Safety Report on Sept. 29 and added statistics of crimes happening on or near campus for the past three years. However, the report doesn’t mention any tower malfunctions. According to the Clery Act, this report is supposed to include “a summary of emergency response systems and procedures.”

Comino said that transparency from AU regarding safety resource information is lacking.

“I think that overall, what I see the most is just a need for [safety resources] to be better communicated,” Comino said.

Bennett wrote that there are 228 total emergency phones across campus. This includes blue light tower phones, blue light emergency phones hardwired to exterior building walls, yellow emergency phones mounted inside buildings and red emergency phones stationed at residence hall front desks and in various buildings. Bennett went on to state that 225 of these emergency phones are “fully operational.”

However, statements from the University’s Internal Communications Office stated that a total of six emergency phones are not fully operational. There are an additional four blue light towers with operational phones, but inoperational LED lights. The Eagle’s investigation concluded that at least ten of the blue light towers stationed around campus are not “fully operational.”

Correction: A previous version of this article did not properly attribute information from a Talkaphone sales representative. The article has been updated to correctly attribute the information to the representative. A previous version of this article misattributed information collected by The Eagle to AU chief communications officer Matthew Bennett. The article has been updated to correctly attribute the information to The Eagle. A previous version of this article attributed information provided in a statement from AU to Bennett. The article has been updated to attribute the information to statements from the University’s Internal Communications Office. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there were 228 blue light towers. The article has been updated to correct this.

Patricia McGee, Tyler Davis and Walker Whalen contributed reporting to this article.

This article was edited by Tyler Davis, Walker Whalen, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Sarah Clayton.

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