Safety call box alarms problematic for students, University Police Department


Hobo Day 2016 saw four cases of false blue light call box alarms on campus. 

This has been a continuing trend the University Police Department does not have tolerance for and can land the suspect with a class-one misdemeanor, a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Ironically, false alarms are the most common use of the call boxes located around campus, said Tim Heaton, UPD Chief.

The 2016 Annual Security Report said false alarms “create a feeling of false security,” which can take away the urgency from an actual emergency.

“You get that feeling [to not take it seriously after a false alarm], but every time an alarm goes off, we have to go because we don’t know what it is,” Heaton said. “If it’s someone having a heart attack or someone being attacked you want to be there, so you don’t want to be dragging your feet if it’s an emergency.”

False alarms are most common during Future Farmers of America week, campus group tours and busy events like Hobo Day, Heaton said.

False alarms, however, are not the only problems surrounding these call boxes.

Since the boxes were originally installed in 1998, at $4,000 a unit, their reliability has been put to the test when, on multiple occasions, black plastic bags have covered the illuminating blue light on top of the unit — indicating an out-of-order call box.

Senior biology and nutrition major Shivon Barwari believes not having these call boxes in order defeats the purpose of having them altogether.

“I assumed they were out of order and, with a sarcastic laugh like what’s the point then? Because then you essentially have nothing there to begin with,” Barwari said. “It’s even worse knowing something is there but it’s broken.”

The department of Facilities and Services oversees the maintenance of the call boxes. Jim Weiss, director of Facilities and Services, said the cold South Dakota winters cause the batteries to drain low or die — rendering the box unusable.

Tests are performed on the boxes to ensure their battery life and radio signal strength. 

“We do it [tests], probably monthly radio tests; it’s periodical because they are self-diagnostic [machines],” Weiss said. “The batteries we keep on hand so we can fix the next day.”

Students understand issues with maintenance and believe they should be expected to not work all of the time, said junior agriculture business major Brianna Buseman.

“I guess I wasn’t here when they had those issues, but like most things you expect a battery to wear out over time but [it’s fine] as long as they’re keeping up on it,” Buseman said.

On the other hand, the units sometimes need to be shipped to their parent company Call24 Security & Callbox in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for internal upgrades or repair — a process Weiss said can take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks.

The decision to put plastic bags over the units was to inform students the units were out of order and to not give them a false sense of security in an emergency situation.

“When one of them goes down, I would rather a black bag be put on it rather than people think that it’s working,” Heaton said.

According to Weiss, three years ago the call boxes underwent internal upgrades and were out of order for weeks at a time. During this period, the boxes’ circuit boards were upgraded, they narrowed their band compliance for the Federal Communication Commission standard and changed frequencies. 

Students who were on campus at the time of these extended repairs remember them being down and say their down time was “unsettling,” Barwari said.

“I mainly remember them from freshman year, but I remember them being down for weeks at a time so I think it should be a lot faster, but other than that I assume they [normally] work,” Barwari said.

Heaton said during this period he received some “backlash and got some phone calls” for the out-of-order call boxes from students and students’ parents in regards to lowered security on campus.

Since these upgrades, Heaton said the call box repair time has decreased and the boxes continue to have a positive impact on campus safety.

Two factors that help impact the boxes’ effect on campus safety have been their location and their around-the-clock service, according to Heaton.

The locations were chosen through student surveys of foot traffic to determine where they would be most effective. And while Facilities and Services staff are responsible for the maintenance of the boxes’, UPD is responsible for sending someone from dispatch to the call box location. 

Buseman believes the location of these boxes are adequate and “seem to be centered where there’s a lot of traffic at night.”

Call boxes have not been the only evolving security on campus. Heaton said SDSU has taken strides in decreasing crime on campus since he started with UPD. Campus lighting and officer patrol saturation, among others, are what Heaton attests have lowered crime rates since he started.

“I don’t know that it’s a huge impact [having the call boxes,] but it gives us another feature on campus to promote safety to know if something has happened,” Heaton said. “We still have incidents, but the number of vandalisms where people didn’t see anything have diminished quite a bit.”

Heaton added that while the technology of these boxes is dated, they keep them on campus for a suitable reason.

“There would be a lot of things we could improve on those boxes, but right now we’re just using that as an extra safety measure and we’re adding cameras all the time to keep an eye on campus,” Heaton said.

Buseman also believes having these boxes on campus has a positive impact.

“I think that it’s a beneficial thing for them to have, I don’t know how much they were used but I think it’s more safe to have them in place rather than not have them,” Buseman said.