Small Steps to Safety

Small Steps to Safety

From reallocating existing resources to investing in relatively low-cost products, higher ed leaders are at the same time managing risk and enhancing the health and safety of all who navigate campus.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE <b>VIRGINIA TECH</b> tragedy, colleges and universities nationwide were prompted to take broad steps to improve the safety and security of their on-campus constituents. But in truth, the biggest risk of injury to students, faculty, and staff is not a disturbed individual, but a worn infrastructure. Crumbling sidewalks, dark passageways, and roadways that have not kept pace with increased speed and use are some of the most common campus dangers.

"The frequency and severity of claims for slips, trips, and falls have become one of the largest concerns on campus, especially with the long-term medical care needed for those whose injuries require such a response," explains D. Jean Demchak, higher ed risk management specialist at Marsh (www.global.marsh.com), an insurance broker and strategic risk advisement firm.

Fortunately, taking corrective and preventive action may be easier than one might think. In addition to helping prevent serious injuries, campus leaders who take even incremental steps to improve their environment have found increased student satisfaction, fewer complaints, and fewer safety and security incidents-not to mention a reduction in the potential for more serious, and costly, injury.

By examining the potential for injury, with an eye toward preventing problems, many health and safety departments have uncovered relatively simple solutions for correcting hazards.

One of the first things leaders can do to identify dangers on campus is simply to ask the people who traverse them day in and day out-students, faculty, and staff-recommends Tracy Zontek, an assistant professor in the Environmental Health Program at <b>Western Carolina University</b> (N.C.). "Ask what areas are slippery, what areas are dark, where are there problems?" she suggests.

Also, talk to student health services staff about the types of injuries they see and where they often originate, in order to identify any patterns or trouble spots. And make it easy for people to report incidents when they do occur. Set up an e-mail address and communicate it campuswide to encourage more reporting, rather than requiring students to trudge across campus to a specific office. That won't happen, says Zontek, because students typically won't make the effort, and administrators will have lost valuable information.

In addition to asking for information from people on campus, design an education program to quickly alert students, faculty, and staff when there are safety issues they should be aware of, suggests Zontek.

Experts advise devising a way to share information and to collect it for redistribution. For example, if there has been a rash of thefts on campus, try a procedure to communicate the risk to the campus community and to gather information from witnesses who may have spotted the perpetrator, or to allow victims to more easily report their own misfortune.

Talk to student health services staff about the types of injuries they see and where they often originate, in order to identify any patterns or trouble spots.

Easy ways to communicate include e-mails, text messages, and even flyers in bathroom stalls. The cost is minimal, but by establishing a procedure to track and communicate such incidents, the community feels better informed and that they have a voice, Zontek says.

Another way to improve safety is to get faculty and students more involved, such as in a regular "walk in the dark," which the <b>University of Houston</b> holds to help campus safety departments identify areas of concern, says Lawrence Schulze, an associate professor of industrial engineering who also serves on the university's safety and security committee.

As a result of walks in the dark, the committee has learned of and been able to improve areas with bad lighting, uneven sidewalks, shrubs that someone could hide behind, and crosswalk problems. Helping students, faculty, and staff feel safer at night is especially important at the University of Houston, which has the largest graduate student population in the state of Texas. Those grad students are "often on campus at night, with classes until 9 p.m.," says Schulze. They need to know they're safe when walking to their cars.

Adequate lighting is a key issue on every college campus, but adding lamps or light bulbs isn't always necessary, as <b>Georgetown University</b> safety leaders discovered.

Shortly after joining Georgetown as its new vice president for university safety, Rocco DelMonaco began improving campus safety by looking at "the low-hanging fruit"-in other words, projects that could be completed relatively quickly and easily before the start of the fall semester.

One of his first initiatives was the addition of new lighting and replacement of bulbs in existing lamps on the 104-acre campus. But before starting on the lighting, DelMonaco had the grounds crew cut back shrubs and trees around the perimeter, where it was noticeably darker. "We trimmed trees and landscaping like you wouldn't believe," says DelMonaco, "making a significant difference in improving the darker areas. ... There was a marked improvement even before the bulbs were replaced and the new lighting added."

The cost to lighten up the campus? DelMonaco estimates an internal cost of around $5,000, simply from dedicating the manpower to the task during the summer months.

Another step that DelMonaco's departments took (he oversees public safety, environmental safety, and emergency management and business planning) was to examine the card readers and locking systems in place on building doors, to determine how well they were performing. Surprisingly, the team found a variety of systems-some mechanical, some tied to alarm systems, and some with card readers.

Next, they studied how each door was being used. They discovered that some doors were outfitted with security systems that were unnecessary, while others lacked additional precautions. But instead of rushing out and buying all new systems, they made better use of existing resources. For example, when they found doors with card readers attached that were only used as exits, not entrances, they relocated the readers to mechanical doors that needed them, at no additional equipment cost.

While equipment can certainly curtail unauthorized entry into buildings, having eyes around campus watching suspicious activity can also help improve safety and reduce crime. University of Houston officials have taken a two-pronged approach on that front-using nonuniformed police officers (who look like students) to keep an eye on things, complemented by video surveillance.

"We have around 300 cameras on campus," says Schulze, "some that are visible and some that are not." Most parking lots have signs notifying people that video surveillance is in use, but in other areas their location is more covert.

Despite the fact that pedestrians typically outnumber vehicles on university campuses, they are no less at risk when crossing a campus road, where even a minor collision can cause major injuries. One way the <b>University of Connecticut</b> works to keep its pedestrians and cars from making contact is through annual roadway surface painting.

Every year the fog lines, stop lines, and crosswalks are repainted in bright white, and the center lines repainted in bright yellow, says Major Ronald Blicher of the UConn Police Department. It's an effort to keep cars in their designated lanes and pedestrians within the protected crosswalks. Yet even bright white lines aren't enough to get cars to stop, so the university added mobile crosswalk signs to increase awareness of pedestrian safety.

UConn purchased approximately 12 to 15 of the lime green, three-foot-high signs to place in the middle of the crosswalks around campus, says Blicher, adding that the cost was around $3,000. The signs are placed in the crosswalks each morning by the facilities department and then picked up each evening, to prevent theft, he says. And even that single reminder that pedestrians have the right-of-way has dramatically reduced speeds on campus, says Blicher.

Another project initiated to protect pedestrians involved realigning the eastbound and westbound traffic patterns on campus. UConn officials noticed that the road running along the perimeter of campus was heavily traveled by students walking to and from off-campus housing; it had a shoulder but no sidewalk, putting students at risk on a daily basis.

Pedestrians typically outnumber vehicles on university campuses, but they are no less at risk when crossing a campus road.

So Blicher and his team worked with the Connecticut Department of Transportation to push the centerline off a few feet, reestablish fog lines, and create room for a sidewalk on one side. The new sidewalks "provide a greater degree of safety for pedestrians," he says, "and we're always looking for ways to address vehicle and pedestrian safety."

As at UConn, <b>Binghamton University</b> (N.Y.) leaders are taking steps to improve pedestrian safety, but the focus there is on improving driver awareness.

Recognizing that pedestrians are at greater risk of being hit by a car on more heavily traveled campus roads, the university reduced the speed limit in several spots on campus from 25 to 20 miles per hour. In addition, its police department invested in four driver feedback signs from Information Display Company (www.informationdisplay.com), or, as Deputy Chief Timothy R. Faughnan calls them, "voluntary speed compliance devices," at a cost of $4,295 each.

Although the university typically has only one pedestrian struck by a car each year, the injuries are often severe, and even one is one injury too many, says Faughnan. The signs are really more of an effort to improve overall campus safety, he explains, rather than a reaction to anything specific.

The four signs are situated alongside the road in either high traffic areas or just before a speed change from 25 to 20, in an effort to remind drivers that the speed is changing and that they need to slow down. Below the speed limit sign is the display that indicates the speed at which the driver is traveling; five miles over the speed limit and the number will flash for added emphasis. The signs work on basic police band radar, are all-weather, are permanently mounted on light posts, and work 24/7. Another advantage, says Faughnan, is that they "are flawless. They've never needed service."

While keeping pedestrians separate from hazards such as cars is one way to improve campus safety, sometimes it is necessary to move the hazard itself, as the <b>University of Idaho</b> did with its disc golf course.

The decision to relocate its disc golf course one-quarter mile further away from the center of campus was prompted in part by the increasing number of angry phone calls about it. Complaints made by pedestrians struck or almost struck by errant discs, compounded by continued vandalism to "improve" the course, such as tree limb removal and shrub damage-resulting in an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 in damage to landscaping over the last few years-led the facilities services department and recreation center to work together in search of an alternate location, says Gordon Gresch, facility manager of the Student Recreation Center.

Years ago, during the heyday of the original Wham-O Frisbee, students set up a makeshift disc golf course in an area on campus near the university's gymnasium. The games then were mostly of the casual, pickup variety, and use of the course was infrequent, notes Gresch.

In the last few years, the lighter Frisbee was cast aside for heavier, denser discs that could be thrown much farther. The sport of disc golf also grew in popularity, leading to the creation of a competitive disc golf team that regularly used the course. "It went from a recreational event to a sporting event," says Gresch.

But it was the increasingly close calls and direct hits on pedestrians during games that started the relocation discussions. After considering several potential sites that were away from the center of campus, one location stood out as the perfect venue-on the outskirts of campus in an area where there are no immediate plans for new buildings.

Disc golf players got to design and lay out the new course, at a cost to the university of around $8,000 for nine holes. The project was completed in the summer of 2007. As for the phone complaints, they have ceased entirely. The only calls the department receives now are compliments-"dozens of compliments," says Gresch. They come not just from those who like the new course but also from people who simply appreciate the safer walk through campus.

<em>Marcia Layton Turner is a Penfield, N.Y.-based freelance writer.</em>


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