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Campus Security Spotlight

The Year of the Emergency Alert

The University of South Florida (USF) has passed a year crowded with incidents involving public safety: a gas leak in a parking garage in April 2009 and the next day a bomb scare in a dorm, followed by a tornado weather warning two days later; a possible gun man in May; another bomb threat in June; potential gun men again in both June and July; and then, most recently, three reports of armed suspects on campus Oct. 5.

Through them all, campus staff has continually tweaked its use of emergency systems, deciding when and how various modes should be used, whether they should be used at all, and how to improve the process to keep the university's community safe.

Emergency Notification Gear at USF
USF has four campuses; the main one in Tampa has about 30,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff. It encompasses 247 buildings across 1,500 acres.

In 2002 the university first installed Rave Alert from Rave Wireless. This notification service, which forms the backbone of the emergency system, provides alerting through text, e-mail, voice, signage, public address systems, RSS, Facebook, instant messaging, and Twitter.

Registration for the service, which has been branded as MoBull (the university's mascot being "Rocky D. Bull"), became mandatory for all students about two years ago, said Christopher Akin, associate director for IT. Akin helped to redesign the emergency system at that time to tie it into USF's Banner student information system. Akin's team and the Banner team wrote a script that runs when a student registers for classes each semester. "That says, 'Hi! Here's the cell phone we have for you,'" he explained. "Or, 'We don't have a cell phone number for you; please provide it. This is what it's for, and here are our terms of use. Please agree to it.'"

Akin said faculty and staff registration into Rave Alert are optional. "But they do sign up for it through our HR system, which is [Oracle] PeopleSoft," he added.

Before making the service mandatory for students, the university had about 10,000 registrants, including staff and faculty. After implementing the requirement, registration went to 50,000. He estimated that it currently holds contact information for about 55,000.

The university pays a flat fee per year for unlimited messaging. "We've really needed that," he pointed out, "because we've had multiple incidents."

During fall 2008, USF standardized on digital display content players from Visix after two departments--Health and the Marshal Center--selected equipment from the company for their environments. (The video displays themselves aren't standardized.) According to a university Web page, USF set this standard to streamline integration with the emergency notification system. "Unless a standard is established, there will be many multiple system vendors, which will make utilization during emergencies much more difficult," according to the site.

In May 2009 USF also added an outside emergency notification system from Federal Signal, which consists of eight stations that blast sirens and play pre-recorded messages over loudspeakers. One station is located on each of four parking garages; the other four are situated on poles around campus.

The university began its plans to install the siren system in January 2008, spurred by the Virginia Tech mass shooting, which had occurred during the previous April. In the event that the siren stations are activated, campus people have been encouraged to check their phones and email for more information.

Oct. 5, 2009
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Tampa received a call Monday afternoon, Oct. 5, 2009, from somebody who said his name was Isaiah Daniels. Daniels told a 911 dispatcher that a person was on the campus near the library with a gun and a bomb. (The individual specifically named in the call, a former student, also presumed to be the caller himself, has since been arrested and charged under a statute that makes it a crime to report falsely the presence of a bomb on state-owned property. He has not yet been to trial.) The call was made from off campus. The Sheriff's Office took the information and immediately contacted university police and played the recording for them.

Within 10 minutes, at 1:46 p.m., a siren echoed throughout the campus. A recorded message blared, "Armed intruder on campus. Stay inside. Lock doors." Moments later, at 1:49 p.m., a text message with the same wording was sent out to all cell phones registered with Rave and to all digital displays. That was the first of seven unique notifications sent out that day.

University police, which had only four or five officers on duty at the time, sent them to the library. They began evacuating the building and looking for the suspect, who, according to the initial caller, was dressed all in black. In the meantime, other officers from the police force were called into duty. By the end, the events of the day would involve 14 police officers. That team included Lt. Meg Ross, whose sole responsibility that day was to communicate with media outlets, who had begun contacting the department about the incident, and Maj. Thomas Longo Major, head of the police department, who was in charge of sending the notifications.

Akin said he happened to be one of the people in the library, since many IT operations are located in the library. "Whenever we have one of these [emergencies], the IT staff immediately logs into the Rave application to make sure things are being processed in a proper amount of time--that messages are going through," he explained. "We monitor the situation and provide general support."

At 2:06 p.m. a second MoBull message was sent, this one saying that officers were on the scene at the library and to "avoid the area and report anything suspicious."

During that same hour, public safety called on all campus shuttle buses to report back to their base, with students and others on board. According to coverage in the student newspaper The Oracle, while a parking and transportation staff person was checking on individuals in each bus, a man stood up on The Bull Runner D shuttle and stated, "I'm the person you're looking for." As one witness recalled, according to the reporting, "It sounded like he was joking and none of us were worried, but I mean it''s a stupid joke at a time like that." The person doing the checking responded, "Oh, don't joke like that," and left.

Shortly after, at 2:49 p.m., the university sent out a third message: ""A separate report of a suspect on a Bull Runner in the Parking and Transportation Services possibly armed. Avoid area and entire campus on alert."" Campus police evacuated all buses except D. With negotiation handlers at the ready to handle a potential hostage situation, police surrounded the bus. Around 3 p.m. they had arrested a USF student and confiscated his backpack, later detonating it and finding nothing dangerous in the exploded remains. He too was arrested under Florida's statute prohibiting false bomb reports on state-owned property, but charges were dropped in November.

Then a fourth message went out at 3:20 p.m., this one reporting that a man was seen carrying a "large hunting knife and a black puppy" near the library. A fifth message at 3:24 p.m. contained additional details. Police detained him and then established his presence was unrelated to the other security events and released him.

In the meantime, the original suspect--actually the same person who'd made the initial phone call--had arrived on campus. Police approached him, not knowing who he was, but found no reason to detain him.

An "all clear" message was sent at 4:19 p.m., informing recipients that they could resume "normal activities," except in the area where the shuttle buses were parked. A last "all clear" message went out at 5:56 p.m., telling subscribers that all areas of the campus had returned to normal.

Two days later, Oct. 7, 2009, police arrested the former accounting student and charged him with making a false report of a bomb on state property. Investigators found him, according to Ross, through postings he had allegedly made on his Facebook page before, during, and after the threat, containing details that hadn't been made public.

During the four and a half hours that the set of events consumed, the university sent out a total of 383,690 messages to Rave Alert subscribers. Most people received their alerts within three minutes of the sending.

Lessons Learned
After an emergency happens at USF, representatives from public safety, communications, marketing, and IT meet to discuss how activities unfolded and where the university can improve its procedures.

"This was very much a learning experience," said Akin. "We have certainly looked and will always continue to look at how we communicate, what tools we have, and where we have shortcomings."

In the case of the events of Oct. 5, in which ultimately nobody came to physical harm, those lessons focused on three areas: dead zones where messaging wasn't received, the loudness of the siren system, and the effects of panic that surface when people get small bits of information about a dangerous situation.

Dead Zones
Akin said he estimates that 25 to 30 people reported not receiving the alerts, a count he considers very small. Yet, his crew tries to figure out for each and every report why the message wasn't properly delivered. "One of the reasons we're partnering with Rave is because they work very hard with carriers and aggregators to assure delivery," he said. "For the most part, we've haven't had many issues." The more likely reason, he said, is that a given subscriber is located in a "dead zone," "like a basement of a building, where you only have that one bar of [cell] service."

In response, the university is considering its options for increasing coverage and achieving those inside-building notifications. One approach is to use cellular repeaters, which boost the signal. "But it's very expensive," said Akin. Another more likely option would be to install an electronic PA system. "They're about the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet," he explained. "It's got flashing strobe lights for the hearing-impaired. It has an audible tone. And it has an LCD screen across the front that can display the mobile message because it integrates with Rave Alert." Those would be used in gathering places, such as large lecture halls or atrium-type spaces.

Siren Volume
Ross said the outdoor sirens turned out to be too loud for police response. "They're so loud that when we have officers trying to clear an area, we can't hear ourselves on the police radio." Rather than backing off entirely from the use of sirens, however, she said the force would verify the need for their use. "We don't want an officer walking in to clear a room and have it be a dangerous situation and not be able to transmit over the radio because nobody will be able to hear it."

"We never intended for those [sirens] to penetrate buildings," Akin added, "They were meant to notify visitors who may be walking around or people not in front of computers. But we found out that people expected that they could hear those inside the buildings. That's not the way those were designed." An indoor PA system would address that problem too, he said.

The Panic Problem
Education of the campus community is an ongoing challenge, observed Ross. The moment a text regarding a potentially dangerous situation goes out, some people begin predictably to panic, and the stream of misinformation increases, she said. "Our dispatch center got a little shut down with phone calls." The noise multiplied as participants and onlookers Twittered their experiences during the day. "USF gunman" turned up as the 15th ranked search on Google Trends for October 5, right behind "three stooges movie."

Likewise, the brevity of the messages can lead to confusion. Recipients don't always know how to respond. "Everybody was evacuated out of the library, and then they stood around in the front of the library," she said. "I would suggest if somebody evacuates you from a building where there's supposedly an armed intruder, probably you should get away from the building."

But she's quick to add, "Every situation is unique. I tell our communities, 'There's nothing I can say to guarantee your safety. If you're in a situation, you know best what you're facing. You can't call me up and ask what to do. I try to encourage people to have a plan----some idea where you could go and what you could do. But even then, when something like this happens, there will be some unique twist that will change whatever the plan is."

And that imprecise reality defines the use of technologies--alerts, sirens, digital signage, and others--during a possible emergency as well. As Akin concluded, "You have to use all of these communication methods very strategically. There's not going to be one rule that will cover all scenarios."

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