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
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
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.