Students question MoBull emergency alert system

After not being alerted by MoBull of a bomb threat in a residence hall, some students are wondering about the use and reasons behind the MoBull service, while University officials feel the system still works well.

The MoBull service, launched in 2002, is used to alert students, faculty and staff of
emergencies through text messages and e-mail. Bruce Benson, assistant vice president of Public Safety, said 45,000 people are signed up with the service.

Its most recent use was Tuesday, when MoBull sent out a severe weather warning for all campuses at 8:39 a.m. At 8:58 a.m., it reported that there was a tornado warning for North Hillsborough County until 9 a.m.

However, after a bomb threat in Holly C on Sunday, some students, such as Smita Kothari, a senior majoring in economics and marketing, said they wondered how the administration decides when to use MoBull.

If a text message was withheld to prevent panic, Kothari said, then that needs to be expressed.

For a crime, Public Safety decides whether the situation requires the use of MoBull after being contacted by University Police.

Benson said each of the decisions is a judgment call.

“We use that phrase ‘a timely warning,'” he said. “If there is something we need to warn people about, if there is something they need to do to take action — like to seek shelter if tornadoes are coming — if there is value in giving that timely warning for people’s safety, then as soon as we can package together something meaningful, we are going to send it out.”

After the decision is made, Public Safety contacts Media Relations, which posts the information on the USF Web site and sends the MoBull text messages to those signed up for the service. The information is also displayed on on the digital screens in the Marshall Student Center, among other places on campus.

The reason MoBull was not used for the bomb threat, Benson said, is because the situation was “contained.”

On Sunday soon after the call, a police supervisor then met with Housing officials and Resident Assistants and determination of what they needed to do, Benson said.

“They pretty quickly evacuated the building and they had other officers there,” he said.

The building was blocked off and officers didn’t let anyone in that area.

“If that was in the broad daylight in a classroom building during the week, we might put a MoBull message out for students to know if they were heading to their classroom that that building was secure and they are not to go to their classroom,” Benson said. “In this case, there was no value to the community in alerting people because we were fully in charge of that scene and contained.”

Benson gave the same reason for not informing students of the gas leak in the Crescent Hill parking garage Saturday night. Tampa Fire Rescue shut off the gas and stopped the leak. Later, TECO Peoples Gas fixed the problem.

However, some students said they wanted more information.

“I would have preferred to hear the news (of the bomb threat) from an e-mail,” said Emily Johnson, a senior majoring in international business. “Then we wouldn’t hear it from other places.”

Another problem one student faced was finding out how sign up with the program. Elliot Dickson said he had heard of MoBull, but didn’t know the details.

“I honestly don’t know how to sign up,” he said.

Benson said he still thinks MoBull works well.

“We are hoping to get a software interface system in the future, where we would still send MoBull out separately,” he said.

The software package would allow the University to send messages through MoBull, signs and the Web site at once, but would still allow only text messages to be sent.

“If we get that system, which we are working on now, that would speed up that process,” Benson said. “I think the system we have works very well — it’s a good system.”