Rocky Shields app to protect students from harm


By Daniel Hall – dhall1@unca.edu – Staff Writer | April 1, 2015 |

UNC Asheville takes another step into the modern age with the launch of a new app dedicated to campus safety and security.

The app, Rocky Shield, is absolutely free of charge, available on both Android and iOS platforms. It features a suite of personal security tools, chiefly the ability to transmit to campus police the user’s precise location and movements in the event of an emergency.

“It’s a really good safety feature for students to be able to have,” said Eric Boyce, assistant vice chancellor for public safety. “It has a lot of functionality. We want every student to download it and have that sense of security.”

The red “GET HELP” button, located at the top of the app’s main page, activates Rocky Shield’s primary function. Pressing the button will initiate a short countdown, after which the app will place a call to the authority corresponding to the user’s current location – campus police when on campus, 911 when off. For this to be determined, the user, when prompted, must allow the app to access their phone’s location, or enable this access in their phone’s settings.

If Rocky Shield contacts campus police, the dispatch officer at Vance Hall will receive a readout containing the user’s pertinent information, so long as that information has been previously entered by the user. The readout will also show the phone’s precise location.

Kip Garman, a freshman from Saint Croix, Virgin Islands, studying psychology and marketing, said he was surprised with how advanced the technology was.

“Really, I’m impressed with the app,” Garman said.

If the user is in a building, it will even include the exact floor and room number, determined via the university’s Wi-Fi network. And since the app continues to track the student, even after initial contact, this enables dispatch to send help even if the user is not able to complete the call or stay on the phone.

“This little ball will follow you around campus until you actually deactivate it,” Boyce said.

Note this tracking ability is specific to UNCA campus police. If the button is pressed outside UNCA’s boundaries, it will function as nothing more than a standard 911 call.

But “Friend Watch,” another of the app’s features, will function just as well on or off campus.

“If you don’t need to communicate with the police,” Boyce said, “Friend Watch is a really nice feature that you can use to look out for each other.”

Each user can have up to three emergency contacts associated with their profile. Say a hypothetical user, John or Jane Doe, is about to enter into a potentially dangerous situation. Using Friend Watch, Doe can send out an alert to their emergency contacts beforehand, which can be customized to include the specific activity and the length of time Doe estimates that activity will take. For example, the activity might be “walking down a dangerous street” for a duration of “20 minutes.”

Garman said he does not foresee using this, but would certainly recommend it to others.

“Younger sister, girlfriend – definitely,” Garman said. “Would love them to use the app.”

Accompanying this alert would be a webpage where Doe’s friends could monitor his or her movements via an updating GPS marker.

Once 20 minutes have elapsed, if Doe has not yet deactivated the feature using their PIN, a second alert will transmit to the user’s emergency contacts, requesting they check in with Doe to make sure he or she is OK. And if the friends cannot confirm Doe’s safety, they can use the GPS marker to direct authorities to the correct location.

“Safety is a shared responsibility,” Boyce said. “Anything we can do to look out for each other.”

Hanna Mathis, a senior Spanish student from Waynesville, North Carolina, said she could see herself using this feature.

“It seems like a good idea,” Mathis said. “And if I was in a sketchy place, I would definitely want to use it. Sounds like a really good idea. Especially if I was by myself, or somewhere I didn’t know.”

Users can also avoid some problematic areas altogether using the Rocky Shield’s Crime Mapper, which is a map of recent criminal activity on campus. Specifically, criminal activity that falls under the umbrella of the Clery Act, a federal statute requiring universities to keep students informed of potential threats.

Chelsea Fischer, an environmental studies student in her junior year, said apps like Rocky Shield would be of greater benefit in cities such as her hometown of Philadelphia, but she sees the value of the app here as well, and will likely find use for it.

And users can themselves contribute to campus safety by submitting a tip directly to campus police through the app. The “Submit a Tip” feature allows users to report situations on campus that need attention, such as suspicious behavior and individuals, along with a photo or video attachment. Users can also choose to submit a tip anonymously.

“This is just another way for students to let us know what is going on,” Boyce said.

Boyce said the vendor for the app was 911 Cellular, which has sold a number of similar apps to other organizations and universities.

According to the 911 Cellular website, 70 percent of emergency calls are placed using cell phones, yet many public safety answering points still lack the technology to accurately determine the locations of these calls. With 911 Cellular’s apps, this ability can become more widespread.

Barry Orvin, a junior new media student from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, echoed the sentiment.

“The thing is, I don’t feel that unsafe here,” Orvin said. “But I feel like it’s a really good application for people who might.”

Orvin said he could still see himself downloading the app and setting it up, just to have it on his phone in case he has occasion to use it.

“Make sure you download the app,” Boyce said, “and any time you feel like you need to contact the police, feel free to use it. We got it for the students, for their enhanced safety. We want to make sure it’s popular. We want as many as phones to download it as we can, here on campus.”

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