Illinois shooting prompts USF to assess preparedness

USF administrators are examining whether the campus can handle an emergency similar to that of Northern Illinois University, where a former graduate student returned to the Dekalb campus to shoot 21 people, killing five.

Administrators called a series of meetings that began Feb. 15 – the day after the incident – to address these issues.

One of the top priorities in the meetings, said Bruce Benson, director of public safety, was the expansion of participation in the MoBull emergency notification system, which sends text messages to students, faculty and staff, notifying them of dangers on campus. Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall is also planning a student safety fair, highlighting the need for students to sign up for MoBull, he said.

“We kicked around some other ideas, and there was student representation,” he said.

Since being hired in January, Benson said strides have been made to improve security on campus, but more work lies ahead.

“I think we’re at a reasonable level, but we’re going to be improving that significantly in the months ahead,” he said.

Benson said University Police (UP) is adequately trained and he is confident that they could handle an emergency.

Trained in case of emergencyIf an incident such as a school shooting were to take place, UP is equipped and has gone through active shooter training, Benson said.

Active shooter training means that UP officers are taught to handle a situation in which a criminal is actively shooting on campus, a job that historically had been left up to SWAT teams who could take up to an hour to arrive on the scene.

Incidents like the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres have proven to colleges that they do not have time to wait for SWAT teams to arrive, Benson said, as campus police would simply surround the building in question and then call for a team.

Benson said UP has backup from surrounding agencies, including the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for things like hostage negotiations and SWAT team efforts.

UP officers are also trained in Incident Command System (ICS), which teaches them how to respond to emergencies and disasters.

The system is a part of the National Incident Management System mandated by the Federal Government in 2003.

Benson said USF will be implementing and expanding the ICS model campus-wide. Someone needs to be in charge of logistical concerns, such as securing extra equipment for the police or bringing in food for emergency workers, which are tasks that could be done by others on campus besides UP Benson said.

Understaffed UP could pose challengeLt. Meg Ross, public information officer with UP, said a lack of manpower presents a possible hindrance concerning responsiveness. UP currently employs 41 patrol officers, including another officer who started Friday, though the campus is funded for up to 53 officers.

“Here again we have the situation like Virginia Tech, we have been trained for such a situation with our active shooter training and we are continuing with that training, however manpower is an issue,” she said. “Right now we probably have five people on patrol and more people in the building because it is daytime. But if it (an emergency) happens at night, then we have to call for help from other agencies.”

There are generally five officers on patrol at all times, and if one makes an arrest, that brings the number down to four, Ross said. If another officer responds to a call, such as a theft or a medical emergency, then that brings the number down to three.

Protocol states that if an incident like a school shooting were to take place on campus, however, UP must wait until three or four officers to arrive on site at the building where the shooting is occurring before going inside.

A critical component of security is the school’s ability to notify students of emergencies and deliver instructions to get students to safety.

Expanding efforts to notify studentsBenson said that George Ellis, associate vice president of information technologies, is in charge of a security technology work group, which is planning to overhaul the University’s emergency notification system.

If a dangerous situation were to develop on campus, Ross would be notified and in turn she would inform Media Relations, which would then notify students using MoBull Plus.

Ross said the arrangement could be cumbersome and she welcomes ideas on streamlining the notification.

“There are a tremendous number of systems in place. We’re looking to put those together appropriately with additional systems,” Benson said. “In the event of an emergency, instantly everyone would get notified. Secondly, students would also receive follow up information on what to do such as ‘stay away from the library’ or ‘go to the Sun Dome.’ It’s a quick two-stage system.”

About 12,000 people are currently signed up for MoBull.

Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Carl Carlucci is talking with student leaders about an automatic sign up for new students starting in the fall.

Benson is also working to create and fill a position entitled ‘Emergency Operations Manager.’ The person would work for Benson in the Division of Public Safety, a job that’s currently addressed by Physical Plant.

Benson will be in meetings this week to try to clarify this position by working on a job description. Benson said this position – as well as vacancies within UP – are exempt from the University-wide hiring freeze and stressed its important to him.

“Its one of my personal priorities,” he said. “I’ve got to have that person in place. That’s got to be a full time, high level, really solid management person.”

USF administration turns to report’s recommendationsFor administrators, part of planning for a disaster has been looking to a private security consulting firm’s assessment of campus security. The firm-Hallcrest Systems Inc.-released its report in January. The report included several recommendations to improve security.

The recommendations spanned from fixing faulty communication radios, hiring private security guards, mandating the wearing of ID cards to improving video surveillance. Benson said progress has been made on several of the recommendations.

The University is working to address one of the major concerns of the Hallcrest report: streamlining the dispatch systems of UP, Allied Barton and Parking Enforcement.

“At the very least, I’m hoping to put them in the same room so even if its three separate systems, it won’t be three separate rooms. The next step I’d like to accomplish from there is one system,” Benson said.

Ross expressed the need for streamlining dispatch, saying that it makes “good sense.”

“If Allied Barton sees something, they have to call into their dispatcher, who then calls our dispatcher so it could be made quicker,” Ross said.

In addition to being understaffed in the patrol department, UP is also in need of more dispatchers. UP has four dispatchers on staff and one in training.

In order to always have two dispatchers on call 24 hours a day, UP would need to employ nine dispatchers.

“They’ve all been working some mandatory overtime because of that. We’re interviewing for a sixth,” she said.

The Hallcrest report also recommended mandating that all individuals on campus wear ID badges. Benson said the administration has begun adopting this measure.

“Dr. Carlucci has mandated that we (members of the administration) all wear ID cards,” Benson said. He said he’s unsure of whether or not it will soon spread campus-wide, however.

Benson also stressed the need for vigilance on the part of students.

“People have to be alert, particularly students,” he said. “You don’t walk across campus alone at night. You don’t put yourself in situations that just appear to be unsafe. Students need to be aware of their surroundings. When you see things that just don’t fit or seem out of place, go to a blue light or go to your cell phone and call the police. We don’t mind checking those things.

“People have a tendency to feel foolish to alert somebody but they shouldn’t. That’s a way of life now.”

Students express mixed feelings about securityNicole Lanni, a junior majoring in English literature, was concerned about safety in light of recent events.

“Especially with all the things that are going on now, Virginia Tech and Illinois, there is always that looming feeling in your mind that something could happen here,” Lanni said. “But overall this campus is fairly safe. There is always that ominous feeling. It happens everywhere you go, you could be at the mall and you get that too.”

Mitchell Rose, a junior majoring in education, worries whether any campus can be prepared to handle such a tragedy.

“There are the whole budget cuts on the police force and then we have these rent-a-cops guys, so I don’t expect anything,” he said.

“If something happens, then no, I don’t think we are prepared. But what school is prepared? It’s sudden – it just happens.”