TAMPA — If the University of South Florida is ever the scene of a Virginia Tech-style rampage, students and staffers will be alerted by eight emergency sirens around campus.
The sirens, a throwback to the civil defense warning systems of the Cold War, are being installed now. Next week, people on campus could hear chimes or brief voice messages as wires are connected.
"They're placed so that they cover 100 percent of the campus at a high enough decibel level that it'll give a good outdoor warning," said Bruce Benson, USF's interim assistant vice president for public safety.
The sirens are an example of the emergency notification systems that more and more college campuses are adopting in the wake of the April 16, 2007, massacre at Virginia Tech University. That day, 33 people, including the shooter, died in the deadliest attack by a single gunman in U.S. history.
"One of these things could happen at any time, and they happen all over the country," Benson said. The probability of an attack is low, but "the potential for harm is very high in the unlikely event that it does hit your community, so police agencies have to be ready."
The siren system cost about $200,000. Each of its stations has a siren, strobe light and loudspeaker and is capable of sending out a loud warning noise, followed by a very short message, such as "Tornado headed this way; seek shelter," Benson said.
"This thing is meant to be the first outdoor warning," he said.
Additional information would be available through text messages, the school's Web site, e-mail or digital display screens on campus.
The sirens are only being installed on USF's Tampa campus, but the text-messaging service, known as Mo-Bull, covers more than 50,700 students, faculty members and staff members on all of USF's campuses.
That's partly because some students take courses on more than one campus, USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said. And when a message is sent out, it says which campus is affected.
The text-message alerts have already been put to use at least a half-dozen times, Benson said. Earlier this week, one went out about a possible chemical spill at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. It turned out someone had gotten acetone on his or her skin, and an all-clear went out very soon after.
Last summer, Benson said, a similar alert went out that a young man was spotted carrying an assault rifle near Cooper Hall. That turned out to be an ROTC student who was leaving a training exercise carrying a realistic-looking plastic replica of a military weapon.
In addition to installing the warning system, USF's Tampa campus has begun giving its police officers tactical training on how to respond to an "active shooter" on campus.
The standard response used to be surround the building, call in a hostage negotiator and go from there, Benson said.
"All that went out the window with Columbine and Virginia Tech and some other places," Benson said. Now law enforcement is trained to "go in and try to resolve the situation before anyone gets hurt."
That training has already been put to use. Just after Halloween, a university employee spotted two people sitting in a car, one of them holding what looked like a pistol.
Police responded and were able to find one of the people from the car in a classroom. In that case, it turned out the gun was fake, part of a Halloween costume, and had been left in the car.
But, Benson said, "the officers responded as if it were an active shooter."
A public demonstration of the siren system is planned for the fall when students return.
Adam Thermos, a Massachusetts-based security consultant whose clients include scores of universities nationwide, said the use of emergency notice systems has become widespread in the two years since the Virginia Tech massacre.
When using emergency alerts, he said, it's important to make sure the campus community is educated about what they mean and practices responding to them appropriately and consistently, just like for fire drills.
"Otherwise, it's not going to work," he said. "Kids are going to be nuts in the beginning and then they're going to say, 'More of the same. I'm not going to respond.' "
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.