Nationwide Cell Phone Outage Highlights Need for Multiple Emergency Communications Systems

“We can’t depend only on an app for students’ safety," one person wrote on a petition to install emergency call boxes at the University of Georgia after a student was murdered.
Published: March 1, 2024

On Feb. 22, an AT&T network service outage left over 71,000 U.S. customers without calling or data capabilities for up to 12 hours. The outage is under investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who noted the outage left many unable to call 911.

While looking over a petition urging the University of Georgia to install emergency call boxes, also referred to as blue light phones, following the on-campus murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley, one petitioner’s comment stood out to me.

“Only 4% of public universities don’t have a blue light phone system,” they wrote. “Yesterday there was a nationwide cell phone outage. We can’t depend only on an app for students’ safety.”

It has long been a leading practice to have multiple modes of emergency notification. Emergency communication should be no different.

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In Campus Safety’s 2024 Emergency Notification Survey, 93% of respondents said their organization uses more than one emergency/mass notification system, allowing for the strengths of one technology to compensate for the weaknesses of others.

The potential for weaknesses was significantly highlighted during the 2022 Robb Elementary School mass shooting. Poor Wi-Fi connection and mobile phone coverage, as well as a staff desensitized to alerts by frequent notifications, impacted the effectiveness of the school’s emergency alert system, according to a preliminary report compiled by the Texas House investigative committee.

Between personal safety apps, anonymous tip lines, panic alarms, and emergency blue light phones, among others, there are various emergency communications systems campuses can and should adopt to improve student safety.

According to UGAPD’s website, UGA was one of the first campuses to install emergency call boxes in 1988. In early 2000, telephone systems started moving away from analog technology to digital, and in 2004, the school learned the blue light phone system infrastructure would not be able to support analog technology.

The university considered purchasing a new digital call box system for hundreds of thousands but could not justify the cost after researching data on the analog system call boxes. Over eight years, UGA Police said they received seven calls from call boxes, none of which were for emergencies. They also reportedly researched cell phone usage from 1988 to 2004 and determined using cell phones to contact public safety personnel “has become the new societal norm.”

Blue Light Phones Can Improve Perceived Safety, Deter Crime

While university leaders must often rely on safety data to help them make purchasing decisions, perceived safety must also be considered. The perception of safety is critical in maintaining trust, brand loyalty, and credibility.

“Genuinely one of the reasons why I did not want to go here and why I transferred out,” another petitioner wrote. “For such a big campus, this is one of the only efficient ways to maintain a superficial feel of safety.”

If the lack of a blue light system was a determining factor for one former UGA student, it’s likely the case for others, resulting in lost potential revenue for the school. One study conducted by the University of South Carolina found campuses with more security systems in place experience increases in enrollment and revenue.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Special Report on Campus Law Enforcement, nearly 100% of private colleges and 92% of all colleges have a blue light phone system.

“If 19 out of 20 colleges have emergency blue light phones, the one school that lacks emergency phones is immediately at a disadvantage in terms of perceived security,” an emergency communications systems manufacturer wrote in a contributed article on Campus Safety. 

While the rate of blue light activations has dropped significantly over the years, they have also proven to deter crime. A study of 422 incarcerated burglars found that window and lawn signs denoting the presence of security technology are effective in deterring burglary attempts. Similarly, blue light phones increase awareness of on-campus security measures.

In 2010, Rice University installed 80 blue light emergency phones following an increase in both campus crime and crime in Houston. The following year, on-campus burglaries decreased by 67.74% despite Houston’s crime rate remaining high.

Blue lights also have benefits outside of emergency communications. They provide additional lighting, which has also proven to deter crime, and they often have a video component, which can aid in campus investigations.

Despite continued technological advancements and the rapid adoption of university safety apps, cell phone outages or “dead zones” are not uncommon. Following the Feb. 22 outage, AT&T’s CEO John Stankey wrote in a letter that it wasn’t the company’s first network outage and that it “won’t be our last.”

Having supplemental systems in place that don’t rely on a cell signal or Wi-Fi connection is crucial. Students are demanding it, as the UGA petition shows, so it would behoove campuses to maintain or consider these “older” systems to deter crime, increase perceived safety, and keep students wanting to enroll.

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