BYU Expands Campus Safety With Virtual Safewalks

Location: Brigham Young University By Becky Lewis Published March 2018

Amid the rows and rows of icons that clutter the typical smartphone, it might be hard to find the one you want, especially if you’re in a hurry. And if you can’t find the right one fast, you might just move on to something else.

At Brigham Young University, students and staff won’t have that problem if they’re thinking about asking for a virtual Safewalk across campus, because the BYU police department and the Office of Information Technology has put that function right into the BYU Mobile App Suite.

BYU students already use the BYU Mobile App Suite to do everything from check class schedules to view the lunch menu to track down a restroom, says Steve Goodman, manager of technology and communications for the BYU police department. The agency considered “off the shelf” technology but instead decided that making Safewalk an additional feature on an app students already use would encourage them to take advantage of the service. And while that placement alone may not account for the success of the virtual version of Safewalk, its usage rate is four to five times higher than that for the university’s “live Safewalk” program, and that’s just in the first three months of use. As awareness of the feature increases, so do its usage rates. (The virtual version of Safewalk expands on an existing program where officers meet requesters at designated spots and walk them to their destination. The live walks are offered only during overnight hours, whereas virtual Safewalk is available 24/7.)

“In talking with students, we came to realize that some were reluctant to use physical Safewalks because they thought they were bothering officers, or they felt awkward about trying to carry on a conversation during the course of the walk,” Goodman says. “Sometimes a caller would ask about a physical Safewalk but seem hesitant to actually request one, and if it was late at night and dispatch wasn’t too busy, sometimes the dispatcher would say ‘just stay on the phone with me while you’re walking.’ They were just doing something impromptu to help the students, but it gave us the idea to create the virtual version.”

As it turned out, the idea was not unique to the police department. During a scheduled meeting with the student association advisory council, Goodman mentioned the idea and learned that the students had been talking about a similar concept during their brainstorming sessions. The council gives the university president three recommendations for campus improvement each year, and virtual Safewalk became one of those three for 2017. Council members then served as a focus group to help the BYU Office of Information Technology and police design the user interface so that it seemed intuitive to them.

That interface features the GPS map already in use by campus dispatchers to highlight breadcrumb trails of “Safewalkers.” Since dispatchers are constantly checking the map to locate incidents and keep tabs on the department’s officers, adding Safewalk trails hasn’t had a significant impact on their workload.

“We wouldn’t have the manpower to provide an officer to walk with every one of the virtual users, and making it virtual allows us to expand Safewalk’s boundaries beyond the physical constraints of the campus into the rental housing areas that surround us,” Goodman says. To access a virtual walk, a requester sets a destination via a feature in the BYU Mobile App Suite, and on acknowledgement from dispatch, starts to walk. On arrival, the walker hits a button to tell dispatch of a safe arrival, which also immediately deactivates the GPS tracking. If a walker suddenly deviates from course or stops in one place, Safewalk sends an alert, which results in a text message. If dispatch doesn’t get a reply along the lines of “I stopped to talk to a friend,” there is a follow-up phone call, and if there is still no response, the dispatcher immediately sends officers. Loss of communication also results in an immediate response, as does the walker’s hitting the emergency button. The latter sets off a higher level alarm and the app automatically opens up live communication with the dispatcher, who can activate the feed from the nearest security camera and at the same time attempt to communicate verbally with the walker, in addition to immediately sending officers to the scene.

“The dispatchers are looking at the screen all the time, looking for incidents and patterns and keeping track of officers. They’re aware of everything that’s going on, including the Safewalkers. When it’s really late and not as much is going on elsewhere, they sometimes bring up the cameras along a Safewalk route and keep a closer eye on the walkers,” Goodman says. “We have some students who start custodial jobs at 4 a.m., and the dispatchers have picked up on those who are “frequent fliers” who use it pretty much every day. If one of them always follows a specific route, dispatch will pick up on any deviation right away.”

Although Goodman has considered, and implemented, many commercially available solutions for specific technology problems in the past, in this case the combination of manpower savings, student involvement in development and ease of access made developing the technology internally the way to go. He says a similar instance took place in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when the police department realized a need for a campus-wide emergency alerting system and developed its own because nothing existed then that met the need. Now, a number of commercially available alert systems are available.

“It might be that we’re ahead of the curve on this too, and we’re happy to share our experience with other colleges and universities looking to meet the same need,” Goodman says.