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NPS Emergency Call Boxes Going Out of Service Permanently

A call button near the site of a July sexual assault has been out of order for months.

The emergency call boxes that line the C&O Canal trail from Cumberland, MD through Georgetown in D.C. will no longer be used or maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Instead, NPS will post emergency contact information signs for people to call from their personal cell phones. 

The matter was first brought to Patch's attention by a reader who worried about a broken call box located very near to the site of sexual assault that occurred on the trail in July.

In that incident a female jogger told police she was attacked from behind and placed in a chokehold that caused her to pass out. The incident took place around 9 p.m. on a week night on the trail north of the Three Sisters rock formation, near the vicinity of Water Street NW, according to police.

Sgt. Paul Brooks, the public information officer for the United States Park Police (USPP), told Patch that problems with call boxes have been "constant" and that they are more often used for pranks than true emergency situations.

Brian Carlstom, the deputy superintendent for the NPS C&O Canal, told Patch that the boxes "have become a major maintenance burden."

Carlstrom said in addition to the upkeep problem the NPS has had to evaluate, "How effective are the call boxes anyway?"

Brooks said the emergency call boxes are "outdated technology" and that most people who use the trail carry their personal cell phones with them.

Given the "proliferation" of cell phone usage, Carlstrom said NPS has decided to "shift" from the call box to increased signage. In the next month he expects call boxes along the trail to have signs with the park police dispatch number on them.

But trail user Maitreya Sriram, worries about the safety of the trails, with or without signage and cell phones. In the July attack, the suspect allegedly threw the victim's cell phone away to prevent her finding help during or after the attack.

"Eliminating the emergency response stations and replacing them with signage creates an illusion of safety, but does nothing to deter violent crime," said Sriram in an email to Patch.

Though Sriram readily admits that the call boxes might not be necessarily more effective than signage and cell phones during an incident.

He would like to see additional bike patrols of USPP officers on the trails.

"Couple deterrence with response," said Sriram.

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