Campus safety practices and tools strengthened

Blue Lights can be found all around campus to help students in emergency situations. The university is currently searching for new alternatives including phone applications to replace the system. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut Office of Emergency Management and the UConn Police and Fire Departments are increasing their efforts to protect students in times of an emergency, especially as new safety devices are becoming more popular.

UConn continues to use email crime alerts, Blue Light responders on campus, advertisements and other standard emergency procedures to alert students of crime reports and procedures, as well as assist students in times of emergency. UCPD is open to finding newer technological alternatives to the Blue Lights, but will continue to use Blue Lights until further notice, according to Police Chief Hans Rhynhart.

“We are still open to evaluating different technological solutions for replacement of the phones, however at this time have not found a suitable replacement,” Rhynhart said. “There are no plans, at this time, to remove the phones.”

In a Nov. 3 crime alert that was issued via email to the UConn community, UCPD reported that a man approached a woman outside of the Commissary Warehouse, touched her buttocks and then ran off. The email included a photograph of the perpetrator.

Within two hours, another email was distributed, thanking the community for the quick response to the first email and that the man had been identified and arrested.

“Based on the randomness and seriousness of the crime, the quick report to us, the fact the act was caught on camera and we had 100 percent confirmation that the person on the camera was the person who committed the crime, we felt it was important to include the photograph in the warning,” Rhynhart said. “The photograph and its dissemination led to the quick apprehension of the offender.”

Students appreciate the quick emails informing them of campus safety issues.

“Whenever there is a reported crime we get emails from the police department that detail what occurred and where, and the administration always advises us of health concerns like the gas leak in TLS,” seventh-semester biological sciences major William Carrion said. 

Students may have noticed new advertisements on the shuttle buses instructing them what to do in case of an emergency. One such advertisement says during an active threat to run, hide and if all else fails, fight.

Ryhnhart said posters of these kinds have not been as widely used as they are now.

“Our Office of Emergency Management in conjunction with both the police and fire departments have worked extremely hard to increase the amount of community outreach we do and the posters and other information being disseminated is a result of those efforts,” Rhynhart said.

Blue Lights

In a Feb. 9 article by The Daily Campus, the UConn Police Department told the reporter that removing the Blue Lights was not far off.

The Blue Lights are spread across all UConn campuses. If a student finds him or herself in a threatening situation, they can push the “call” button on one of the 273 Blue Lights across the Storrs campus. Campus police will respond through the speaker on the phone and arrive at the location.

“We had been working with different student and staff groups to evaluate the phones and various replacements to the phones,” Rhynhart said. “We found that the best solution, at this time, is to keep the phones in place.”

The phones were installed as part of the UConn 2000 plan, a 10-year $1 billion program to improve and revitalize the university.

“I don’t really know anything about the Blue Lights,” Carrion said. “I’ve never personally used one and I actually don’t know anyone who has so I think the system could use an overhaul. I like the idea of there being a smartphone app.”

No data is kept regarding how often the phones are used by the University Information Technology Services or UCPD.

Technological alternatives

As UCPD looks for other alternatives to the Blue Lights, the department is considering other devices to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

There are several apps and other safety devices on the market to help people if they find themselves in dangerous situations.

For example, about 100 UConn students are using a personal alarm made by ROBOCOPP, said Public Relations Director Jill Turner.

The PhoneFlare app works in conjunction with a users headphone jack. If a user is in trouble they can rip whatever they have in their headphone jack out to send a notification to a contact that something is wrong. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

The devices, called Sound Grenade and ROBORanger, are small, battery powered devices that emit a loud alarm intended to startle a perpetrator and alert others in the area.

Sound Grenade, available for $16, clips onto a backpack or keychain. Powered by a watch battery, it emits a 120 decibel alarm that can be reset and reused.

ROBORanger, available for $100 plus a $7 monthly subscription, offers the same small size and alarm as Sound Grenade, only 10 decibels louder. It also alerts police, friends and family in the event of an emergency and sends its GPS location. It is the first connected personal alarm.

Turner said ROBOCOPP began like many other new safety devices, with the need for a woman to feel safe on her college campus.

“We think technology can be doing much more,” Turner said. “There are calorie trackers, fitness trackers, but there is nothing for your safety when you really need it. Through our research we found that alarms are one of the best possible criminal deterrents.”

Turner said the company has partnered with college campuses to offer bulk orders of the alarm devices as a discounted price.

A smartphone app called PhoneFlare alerts the police when a user is in danger and sends the GPS location. The app is free for all users.

Users can initiate an emergency in PhoneFlare by declaring an emergency manually, ripping the headphones out of the smartphone or failing to meet a check-in time that was previously scheduled.

There are also options to prevent false alarms, as well as features to address coercion. For example, “silent” alarms can be sent out by selecting a different color alarm, or using a different finger on Apple Touch-ID. To a perpetrator, the phone looks like it was disarmed, but the alert was indeed sent to police.

The app also has the power to record audio and gather Bluetooth data when it is armed.

“We wanted to create an app that would help litigation during sexual assault trials,” PhoneFlare founder Christopher Cinq-Mars Jarvis said. “Underreporting is such a huge problem. The app can gather empirical information and evidence that can help a victim feel a little more confident about being believed.”

The app gathers Bluetooth data to prove that the victim and the assailant were within 15 feet of each other when PhoneFlare was armed and activated.

When hearing about the new PhoneFlare app, ninth-semester chemistry major Alina Sherwani said she would consider using it. However, Sherwani said she never feels the need to carry pepper spray or any other protecting tools on this campus, because she feels safe.

As new technologies continue to make their way into mainstream media, it will be interesting to see how college campuses continue to keep their students and staff safe.

“We are always open to feedback as to how we can continue to deliver professional and efficient police services to the community… We provide a high level of service which we are always striving to make better,” Ryhnhart said. “Community involvement and feedback is critical to this desire to be better.”


Claire Galvin is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at claire.galvin@uconn.edu.