All Along the Watchtowers

In the midst of an emergency, help could be a button push away.

THEY don't make phone booths like they used to. The clear-paneled boxes with folding doors and actual phone books on built-in shelves began disappearing from the landscape long before the rise of cellphones, but now that nearly three out of four people in this country have mobile phone service, even the traditional, unsheltered payphone itself is becoming more passé every day.

What are not disappearing are emergency phones, the number of which seems to be growing proportionally to payphones' dwindling. Found most densely on university and corporate campuses, these phone towers are springing up like primary-colored trees. They are typically emblazoned with words such as "EMERGENCY" and "HELP" for the immediate recognition of anyone in distress, and they don't come with anything resembling a sheltering booth, which would only defeat their purpose. Clark Kent would have no use for them whatsoever.

Although emergency phone towers can be customized in any number of ways--made, for example, to stand any height or to be equipped with internal heaters or solar panels--the only "directory" they normally have consists of the words printed on their two large buttons: "Emergency" on the top red-cast button and "Info" (or something similar) on the bottom black-cast button.

Whom a person is connected to once either button is pushed is also customizable, but usually the non-emergency Info button puts a person in touch with someone who can, for example, come with jumper cables to take care of a dead car battery or a jack to fix a flat. Pushing the red button is more akin to making a 911 call and, sometimes, is making a 911 call. Depending on what brand of emergency phone you're using, other things can happen, too.

Sounding the Alarm
If you're using the model ETP-MT/R OPT-5 Radius Emergency Phone Tower from Chicago-based Talk-A-Phone Co., once you push its red button, the blue light up top that is constantly lit anyway begins strobing, its pan-tilt-zoom AD Delta Dome camera automatically activates and begins recording, and you're immediately connected to the 911 operator, security personnel, police officer, or whoever else has been arranged to be on the other end of the line. You can then talk and listen to that person, who meanwhile has a visual of the whole scene.

According to Talk-A-Phone Chairman and CEO Samuel Shanes, the phone towers' cameras can be turned on and used for surveillance without either button being pushed. "Say I'm the security guard and I'm sitting at a screen, and I see something happening at a certain location," Shanes said. "Some man is walking up behind a woman as she goes to her car, and I don't like what I'm seeing. For whatever reason, I'm concerned. I can turn on the strobe and call the emergency phone that's there and say, 'I see you're walking toward your car. Do you need any assistance?' and mainly let that somebody who's following know that I'm seeing it all. And, well, if the guy takes off, then that was a good call."

Less clear in this scenario is if the guy doesn't run, what then? What if a perp isn't deterred by a flashing blue light and authoritative voice issuing from a pole? Conversely, what if the hypothetical follower, while shady looking on the guardhouse monitor, turns out to be the lady's co-worker ambling over with a friendly farewell when the strobe starts flashing? The Orwellian implications are inescapable, leaving you, like 1984's Winston Smith, with "no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment." Proponents of such so-called Big Brother technology say that any negative ramifications of the "unblinking eyes" integrated into devices like the ETP-MT/R OPT-5 are offset by how much they increase safety, their presence alone often deterring crime.

Shanes said that when Talk-A-Phone towers are combined with the company's Windows®-based hardware/software package called Talk-A-Lert, safety reports are automatically generated and stored for every call, and a "screen pop" with maps and other graphics shows the exact location of where the button was pushed--which is crucial, he added, given that "in an emergency, people often don't even know where they are. They're running from somebody, or they're disoriented."

The software works with an unlimited number of phone towers and maintains system integrity by "polling" each tower at customizable intervals to make sure all parts are working. Additionally, the platform can be used to produce detailed management reports and incoming-call summaries.

The phone/watchtowers themselves are ADA compliant and weather- and vandal-resistant. Shanes said pranksters do sometimes push the towers' buttons to set off the system, but no more frequently than people activate a fire-pull lever in a building just for kicks.

"The amazing thing is how rarely people do it," he said. "I think what happens is, people look at [an emergency phone tower] and they say, 'This is life safety equipment and this is there for my benefit, and it's probably not a good thing for me to be fooling around with it.' Of course, in addition, if you push a button on our phone and there's a camera, it's going to be recorded, so it's not like you're going to really get away with it."

This column appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Ronnie Rittenberry is Managing Editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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