By Marcus Lavergne

Photo courtesy of BlueLight

Photo courtesy of BlueLight

A major focal point for college and university officials has always been student safety. Recently, College Factual, a branch of the big-data analysis site Media Factual,  deemed the University of Nevada, Reno, to be a “safer than average campus.” But even on a relatively safe campus, a new app is helping students to handle unexpected emergency situations.

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a survey of 1,000 students nationwide that showed students feel relatively safe on campuses due to technology. The survey included data on the specific things students were doing to make themselves feel safer in public.

It showed that 80 percent of students who participated in the survey sent a “home safe” text to a friend or family member, 70 percent let someone know where and how long they would be before heading out, 61 percent called someone while walking alone at night, and 52 percent texted someone in advance before going out alone.

With the research conducted and information collected, the creators of BlueLight have put together an app that they are calling students’ “personal safety companion.” The app is said to combine multiple features based on the techniques that students are using to keep themselves safe. These features include location sharing, a “request help” function and quicker connectivity to emergency services than dialing 911.

BlueLight’s network is connected to 100 campuses across the country and has just recently come to UNR. Ceci Marshall, a marketing manager for BlueLight, wrote that student demand brought the app to UNR, and this year students will have an easier time getting assistance on campus. She noted that rather than having to connect with a generic 911 call center, students calling through the BlueLight app on campus will be able to connect to a campus security dispatcher who will know their exact location.

Lauren Wilbanks is the director of communications for BlueLight and has voiced concerns involving the long period of time that passes before a person is actually connected to 911 dispatch.She expects that students will have a much easier time getting emergency assistance through the app.

“When you call 911 from your cellphone, it’s significantly worse than calling from your landline,” Wilbanks said. “They may not actually know where you are. It’s kind of insane when you think about how far cellular and mobile communications have gone and the fact that 911 can’t figure out who you are and might go to the wrong place.”

Since it has been in the Android and iOS app stores since the end of 2014 and start of 2015, respectively, the general public can also use it. Contrary to this, Wilbanks believes that, for now, student safety is the best area of focus for the app. She says that the app can be much more impactful in campus life.

She considers the largest challenge is that people do not completely understand what goes on during emergency calls. She believes that students have to know a bit more about how the system works so that they can better protect themselves in emergency situations.

“I don’t think there’s enough awareness out there,” Wilbanks said. “Some people assume that 911 is magic, that they’re just going to know where you are. So I think there is a pretty strong divorce between students’ perception of what 911 can do and what they can do in an emergency and what really happens.”

Wilbanks has great hopes for the future of BlueLight and the future of safety on campuses and among the general public.

“The goals for the long run would basically be that we are synonymous with safety and security,” Wilbanks said. “That would be to have an integration with multiple cities, multiple 911 systems.”

Through the BlueLight system, Wilbanks thinks that a badly needed digital fix can come to an emergency system that was built for a “land-lined” world.

Marcus Lavergne can be reached at mlavergne@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @mlavergne21.