The Challenge of Campus Notification

April 19, 2007
Florida colleges use e-mail, text messages to alert students

TAMPA - Florida colleges rely on campus police departments to halt shooters and on e-mail, cell phones and text messages to alert students and staff to danger.

At least one Florida school, Florida State University, recently installed towers to broadcast weather and disaster tones across campus and likely will expand them to give voice instructions, campus police Chief David Perry said Monday.

"We can give an action to take - stay inside or seek shelter," Perry said. Students and staff also are alerted with a mass e-mail, activated by one call from a school official, he said, plus postings on the school's Web site.

Perry hosted the opening day of the first summit of Atlantic Coast Conference schools' campus police chiefs in Tallahassee on Monday. Missing was Wendell Flinchum, Virginia Tech's campus police chief, dealing with 33 dead on his campus in the worst shooting rampage in decades.

"Some other issues he was dealing with last Friday evening and Saturday kept him from coming," Perry said. "Our jaws just dropped and our hearts sank when we heard the news.

"Then our phones started ringing to field questions about how we would handle it if this happened on our campuses."

Lacking the smaller size and intercom systems found in K-12 schools, communication on a college campus is more scattered. Today's college students stay so connected, officials said, that news spreads instantly.

Experts encourage colleges and universities to use the technology nearly every student and faculty member already carries - cell phones.

"It's the fastest way to reach students," said Daniel Carter, vice president of Security On Campus, a Knoxville-based nonprofit agency. "We push the innovative use of technology. It can make a real difference."

He spoke just after he arrived on the Virginia Tech campus late Monday afternoon, seeking answers to Monday's tragedy.

Florida colleges have been using e-mail and instant messaging to reach students with information for years, including closings and weather alerts.

Besides mass e-mailings, the University of South Florida offers its own MoBull Plus wireless messenger service, said Jennifer Meningall, president for student affairs. The service is named for the school mascot, Rocky the Bull.

The service offers Web access retrieved through phones and wireless instant text messages for students and staff, she said. So far, it has issued alerts for canceled classes or registration deadlines, she said. "I hope we never have to use it for anything like this."

Users must sign up for the free wireless service, and more than 5,000 have, she said. The school has 36,000 students. About 4,000 live on campus.

Since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, campus police agencies have beefed up crisis plans and training.

Lt. Meg Ross, public information officer for USF campus police, said officers there have taken such training. The force includes 43 sworn officers and 24-hour coverage. Monday's tragedy will spur reinforcement of the effort, she said.

FSU did a training simulation last year of someone bringing a firearm into a residence hall, Perry said. It was complete with firecrackers.

"It showed us a few things we could fine-tune," Perry said.

Campus police agencies weren't eager to share details of their protocol Monday.

"We took what we learned from Columbine, added different components from other shootings to come up with the active shooter protocol," said Lt. Mitchal Welsh, a spokesman for the University of Florida's police department. It has 90 sworn officers.

The first priority for campus police is to "neutralize" the shooter, Welsh said. Information is issued via available media, including campus radio and TV stations. The university is working on a reverse 911 system to make calls, he said.

The University of Central Florida has its own campus police department that, like all campus agencies, coordinates with other local agencies, said UCF campus police Chief Michael Zelanes. It also alerts students of emergencies through e-mail and its Web site.

Reporter Adam Emerson contributed to this report. Reporter Marilyn Brown can be reached at (813) 259-8069 or .

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