Blue phones are security devices, but serve a dual purpose



Their locations are strategic. Some are found in high-traffic locations, such as next to the ATM at Phelps Gate, outside the entrance to Payne Whitney Gymnasium, and behind Toad’s Place. Others are more off the beaten path, some even located on city streets in downtown New Haven.

Around 250 exterior phones, distinguishable by their royal blue lights that glow at night, are located throughout the Yale campus. The phones provide a reassuring sense of safety and security to Yale students who need emergency assistance or simply want to phone a friend in a dorm room. While their distinctive color makes them especially apt at a place like Yale, the blue-light phones are a familiar sight on many campuses throughout the Ivy League.

While many students casually breeze by them on their way to class or social activities, some students regularly take advantage of the communication devices to connect with their friends.

Mike Gold ’04 said that last year he routinely used a blue phone on the way to the gym to call down his workout buddy in Berkeley. While he appreciated the convenience the phones provided in his daily schedule, he was more skeptical of their ability to save lives.

“They provide a false sense of security,” Gold said. “I guess you can run to the phone if attacked, but I don’t really see that happening.”

Meredith Brooks ’05 agreed that seeing blue phones everywhere gives her an added sense of personal safety.

“[The blue phone] is a reminder that it’s there if I need it,” she said.

While the blue phones are omnipresent on campus, their usage varies among the population.

“Despite my background in international security I have never ever used a blue-light phone at Yale,” “Cold War” professor John Gaddis said.

Peter Kindlmann, an electrical engineering professor who has worked at Yale since 1962, said he has never been compelled to use the blue phones since they were implemented in the early 1990s.

“I don’t know whether that makes me a Luddite, an untrammeled soul, a person with unusually comprehensive building access or what,” Kindlmann said.

Some envision a wider sphere of technological possibilities for blue phones in the future.

Assistant professor Edmund Yeh, who currently teaches “Electrical Engineering 444a: Modern Communications Systems,” said that, in principle, the blue phones can function as “information stations” for the Yale community. He said he has used the blue phones on two occasions in order to gain access to his residential college when he was without his key card or cell phone.

“It may be possible to build additional functionality into these phones,” he said. “For instance, it would be nice to be able to check Yale transit bus or Amtrak/Metro North arrival times on them. The goal would be to upgrade the phones to become information service stations for people who are on the go, but do not necessarily have their wireless devices with them.”

Just up the eastern seaboard in Cambridge, Harvard maintains approximately 100 blue phones positioned on major walkways, classroom buildings and residential houses that comprise the university’s campus.

Steve Catalano, a spokesman for the Harvard Police Department, said the emergency phones provide a measure of security and are “good to have available if someone needs them.”

Catalano described an incident just last fall when a person was robbed and immediately used a nearby blue phone to dial campus police. Moments later, authorities were dispatched to the scene and arrested the suspect.

In addition to providing emergency feedback, Catalano said the blue phones serve a “dual purpose” of enabling students to call friends in the university network.

In a forthcoming upgrade for the blue phones, Harvard plans to install a computer aided dispatch, or CAD system, that would enable police to immediately identify the exact location of calls placed, enhancing response times by about five seconds.

Unlike the numerous urban Ivies, Dartmouth College is nestled away in the quiet hamlet of Hanover, N.H. But it is not immune to security concerns, and since 1991 the college has made an effort to standardize an emergency phone system on campus. Dartmouth currently has approximately 47 blue phones and 47 wall-mounted access phones, said Sergeant Rebel Roberts, Dartmouth’s crime prevention specialist.

“They’re highly visible — and there have been very serious circumstances where they’ve been very beneficial,” Roberts said. She added that the phones are more frequently used by people who witness a crime in progress than by the crime victims themselves.

But the implementation of blue phones on campus has not been easy.

“We’re northern New England,” Roberts said. “Not all phone products work in this environment.” She added that the blue phones must be able to withstand snow blown into them by snow blowers.

Back at Yale, Gold said he appreciates the comforting presence of the blue phones around, even if they only play a very small — and at times, humorous — role on campus.

“Outside my window last semester,” Tatiana Jitkoff ’03 said, “some guy was on the blue phone and tricked his girlfriend to talk dirty to him so all his buddies could hear.”


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