College campuses are intended to be safe. They often have their own police force, are well lit at night, have sidewalks connecting all the building and parking lots, and are home to bright, young people. Unfortunately, crime, accidents, and fires can happen anywhere, perpetrated by anyone, and college campuses are not immune. The good news is that from 2001 to 2012, the number of crimes reported on college campuses decreased by 29% and there were nearly 200 fewer campus housing fires in 2014 than in 2009. This article addresses emergency personnel and appropriate reactions to emergency situations so that students can feel prepared and secure on campus.


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Police, Fire, and EMS

Statistics from the Office of Postsecondary Education are alarming. In 2014, there were over 2,100 fires at 692 different two- and four-year postsecondary schools. Nearly 50 students received injuries or died as a result of these fires. That same year, nearly 49,000 criminal offenses were reported at over 5,000 postsecondary schools. Nearly 16,500 offenses were perpetrated against women (sexual assault, stalking, and dating or domestic violence). There were over 86,000 arrests. In light of these statistics, knowing basic information about how to contact the police, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) in your area is a must.

How do I know if I should I dial 9-1-1 or a nonemergency number in a certain situation?

The only times that you should call 9-1-1 are if a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger, if there is a severe injury or condition that needs urgent medical assistance (a heart attack or stroke, for example), if there is a fire, or if a crime is occurring, has occurred within the past 15 minutes, or if the perpetrator is still on the scene. In some cases, 9-1-1 may also be called in the event of a traffic accident, like when the accident requires an ambulance or fire truck. If you call 9-1-1 and there is not a true emergency, you are taking the dispatcher’s time away from people who actually need help.

Familiarize yourself with the local nonemergency number for other scenarios (do a quick internet search for your area). Generally, you should use the nonemergency number for noise complaints, traffic accidents in which there are no injuries, and crimes that have occurred outside of the most recent 15 minutes, among other things. If you do not feel a sense of urgency about the situation, call the nonemergency number first.

If you call 9-1-1 on accident, do not hang up. Dispatchers must call back or send a police officer to your location. It is best to explain to the dispatcher that the call was made by accident. It is against the law to prank call 9-1-1.

What is it like to call 9-1-1 in a true emergency?

Once you connect with a dispatcher, they will ask about the situation and the precise location. He or she will then send an appropriate response team (police, firefighters, and/or an ambulance). It is important to stay calm while you’re talking to the dispatcher so that you can accurately relay information about what happened and whether the situation is ongoing. Be as specific about your location as possible, especially if you are indoors or calling from a cell phone, as location tracking is more difficult in both of those situations. If it is nighttime and you are outside, try to create a light source so that the first responders can find you (turn on a cell phone flashlight, for instance). If that’s not possible, again, you must be very clear about your location.

What is a medical emergency?

It may be obvious that a medical emergency requires you to call 9-1-1 (if a person is bleeding heavily, has exposed broken bones, or cannot breathe, for example), but there are actually many other scenarios that may require emergency medical services. These include:

  • Chest pain
  • Severe burns
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, trouble walking, or fainting
  • Allergic reactions
  • Hypothermia
  • Poisoning
  • Drug or alcohol overdose
  • Threats of suicide or murder
  • Choking
  • Seizures

In a medical emergency, be aware that the emergency dispatcher may give you instructions on how to provide emergency treatment until the ambulance arrives while you are still on the phone. You may have to determine whether a person is breathing, has a head injury, or is unconscious. You may be instructed to turn that person on his or her side, apply pressure, or begin CPR, among any number of things. Unless directed, you should never move anyone, as injuries could be more severe than they appear.

What do I do in the case of a fire emergency?

In case of fire, you should leave the building if you haven’t already. If you are not on the ground floor, use stairs, not an elevator, to reach the level at which you can exit the building. Once you’ve evacuated, you will want to stay at least 100 feet away from the building until a firefighter declares it safe to reenter. Under no circumstances should you go back inside before this point. If you know of someone who was unable to evacuate, be ready to tell firefighters where you last saw that person as soon as they arrive.

If you are in a building and the fire alarm has sounded, it is important not to panic. It could be a false alarm; alarms often sound in older dormitory buildings when popcorn burns in the microwave. You don’t want to rely on this assumption, though, and you should always treat the alarm as if there is a real fire. The following tips will help keep you safe in the event of a fire:

  • If you see a fire, call 9-1-1. Don’t assume that someone else has already done it. Pull a fire alarm if it hasn’t already sounded. If the alarm fails, yell a warning and knock on doors as you evacuate the building.
  • Always take the stairs, not the elevator, when the alarm sounds. Not only can elevator shafts fill with smoke, but the fire can cause the elevator to fail, trapping you inside a metal box that will superheat very quickly. Even if you’re eight floors up, taking the stairs is a safer option.
  • Hunch over or crawl if smoke is present. There will be more oxygen close to the floor and you will inhale less gas. Breathing in heavy smoke can lead to you passing out, at which point you would not be able to evacuate the building. Putting a damp cloth over your face as you evacuate may filter the smoke out as you breathe in.
  • If your doorknob is hot, do not open the door. Instead, open your windows to let in fresh air. If the top can come down, open the top to let out smoke. Line the bottom of the door with a blanket to prevent smoke from entering the room. Hang something out your window (like bedsheets) and yell to attract attention.
  • Stop, drop, and roll if your clothes catch on fire. You want to stop moving, because running or waving your arms will merely fan the flames, giving them more oxygen. Once you’re on the ground, rolling around will prevent the flames from getting more oxygen and effectively smother the fire.

What do I do if I am the witness or victim of a crime?

If you have witnessed or been the victim of a crime, the dispatcher and officers need to know the nature of the crime, when the crime occurred, whether there were weapons present, and everything you can remember about the perpetrator(s) and/or their vehicle (if they have fled the scene) so that they can catch them on the run. If you are the victim of an ongoing crime and it is possible to dial 9-1-1 from a landline, even if it is unsafe for you to speak and you must remain silent, the dispatcher will send police units to your exact location.

If you have been the victim of an assault, you will want to call 9-1-1, but you may also need additional help. Learn more about the resources available to you.

Campus Police

Campus police and security protect a college campus and the people who are on campus at any given time. At larger universities, campus police may also patrol the areas immediately surrounding campus.

There are two types of campus police: those with the power to make arrests and those without that power. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report about campus police during the 2011/12 school year, finding that 75% of the over 900 four-year institutions surveyed employed police officers who had the power to make arrests, and 75% also employed armed officers. Of the institutions that employed armed officers, the majority were public. At the majority of institutions, police were available 24 hours a day throughout the year.

Often, campus police do more than patrol the campus. They are in charge of building and property security, monitoring parking garages and lots, writing tickets if necessary, providing crowd control and security during events, responding to noise complaints and checking on college parties, and answering emergency calls. Most officers are required to be certified in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and automated external defibrillator (AED) as they are likely to be first responders to an on-campus call. Campus police and security will have an individual phone number separate from 9-1-1 or the local nonemergency number. Check with your institution. Write the number down in a safe place and program it into your phone, just in case.

Blue Light Boxes

Many college campuses have emergency call boxes placed strategically throughout campus. These boxes are lit with a blue light and equipped with an emergency button that can directly call a police dispatcher who will send officers to the location of the box. If a student witnesses or is the victim of a crime or has a medical emergency while walking on campus, the blue light box gives the student a direct line to police officers. With the majority of students carrying cell phones, blue light boxes are almost a thing of the past (the University of California, Davis removed all of its boxes in 2001), but many campuses continue to utilize blue light boxes to make campus a safer place.

Ice Cards

If there is an emergency or accident and you have been affected, your school has the authority to alert your emergency contact of the situation; however, if you are in an accident and are not on campus, having a list of emergency contacts in your wallet or phone case is also a good idea, so first responders will know who to call. You may also choose to program an emergency contact into your phone; however, this is not useful if your phone locks, since only you are aware of the phone’s password. If your phone doesn’t lock automatically, labelling your contacts clearly as Mom, Dad, or ICE (In Case of Emergency) can allow first responders to let your family know what has happened.

If you choose to do so, iPhones will allow users to program a Medical ID into the phone that can be accessible during an emergency. The Health app that automatically comes on all iPhones has a Medical ID feature into which you can add a photo of yourself; list medical conditions, allergies, and medications; and then add emergency contacts. You can also program in your height, weight, blood type, and whether you are an organ donor. To ensure emergency services can find your information, you must allow the phone to show your Medical ID when locked (you will be given the option when creating the ID). Then, in an emergency, even when your phone is locked, first responders can choose “Emergency” on the lock screen and access your Medical ID. Android users can download an app that does the same.

AAA recommends keeping one ICE card in your wallet or purse and another one in the glove compartment or center console of your car, if you have one. Information that should be listed on each card includes:

  • Your name
  • The name of your primary care doctor
  • Any allergies that you have (particularly if you have allergies to medications or latex)
  • Any preexisting medical conditions that you may have
  • The name and phone number of multiple emergency contacts

You can print off premade ICE cards here and fill them in yourself. It may also be wise to write down your blood type and list any medications that you are currently taking. Keep your ICE card up to date and on you at all times.

First responders are also trained to look for medical alert bracelets, necklaces, or tattoo. Wearing a medical alert ID gives first responders the information they need to treat you appropriately if you have a severe allergy to food or drugs; a diagnosed illness such as diabetes, a seizure disorder, hypertension, or anemia; or have undergone transplant surgery, are taking blood thinners, or are part of a clinical trial. Medical alert jewelry may be engraved with your blood type, emergency contact, or special instructions (for instance if you carry an epipen). Over 95% of emergency medical personnel look for medical alert IDs when they come into contact with a patient. You can purchase wearable medical alerts from American Medical ID, Hope Paige Medical ID, and Lauren’s Hope.

Page last updated: 12/2016