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Text alerts in gunman scare didn't reach all at USF, professor and students say

TAMPA — University of South Florida assistant professor Rick Wilber knew Jamie Bishop, the German instructor shot in the head in front of his class during the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Wilber thought of Bishop Monday when the sirens went off just as Wilber walked in to teach a class on mass communications and society.

He wanted more information — right away.

But he said he didn't receive USF's "MoBull" text alert about a possible gunman. Nor did many of the 240 or so students in BSN 1100, a lecture hall in the College of Business, where cell phone reception is spotty.

"Students were asking, 'Should we barricade the doors?' " Wilber said. "For better or for worse, we drew the line and we did not barricade the doors."

In response, USF says it continues to expand and improve its alert system. But neither the text messages nor the sirens are meant to be the sole means of telling people about an emergency.

"Even if a small number of people get the text message, that's enough to alert the whole class, which is what happened in the basement classroom," said USF spokesman Michael Hoad, who plays a big role in planning for campuswide alerts.

USF has six overlapping technologies — sirens, text messages, e-mail, the university's Web site, more than 60 digital message boards around campus and a toll-free hotline, 1-800-992-4231, for emergency information.

Plus, Hoad said, it has two old-fashioned systems: word of mouth and sending police to the scene.

Nevertheless, students described not getting text alerts in the main library where the intruder was thought to be and in Cooper Hall, an arts and sciences building east of the library.

That's in addition to the College of Business. "The business building was built down into the ground, and this lecture hall is down in what many buildings would be a basement," Wilber said.

And turning to the university's Web site was of little help, he said. An update was posted to the Web at 2:09 p.m., then nothing more until 2:48 p.m.

After e-mailing his concerns to administrators, Wilber said he had a "very good and productive conversation" with Hoad, who agreed that USF should provide more frequent updates on its Web site.

On Monday, the university didn't have more information to post on the Web site, Hoad said. Still, he acknowledged it would have been better to say that than to leave people guessing.

But he said the question of how much of USF has good cell phone coverage is up to the phone companies.

Helping AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and Nextel improve their service wouldn't be the best use of USF's resources for "the next generation of rapid alert technology," he said.

That next step will be installing video public-address systems in campus buildings and major classrooms. The PA systems would have a speaker, a video display of the MoBull message, plus flashing lights.

Hoad, who has been at USF for 21 years, recalls when the university had no more than a telephone tree, where one person called several others, who called still more people and so on, and so on.

Then came e-mail.

Following the shootings at Virginia Tech, USF expanded its text messaging capabilities. This spring, it installed eight emergency sirens on the Tampa campus at a cost of about $200,000.

On Monday, the MoBull system sent alerts to 54,075 cell phones in less than five minutes. More than 97 percent were delivered successfully.

Of those not delivered, Hoad said the university did not know how many went to phone numbers that had been changed, deactivated, were turned off, had dead batteries or were in places on or off campus that did not have reception.

Still, he said, fewer than 40 percent of universities nationwide have sirens, and less than half require students to provide a cell phone number for text messages.

"Two years ago, we had none of this," he said. "It's not like we're going backward. This is clearly a university that is invested in going forward. But no one thing is going to be perfect."

Monday clearly showed a need to train students and faculty on what to do when they get an alert, Hoad said. During the scare, hundreds of people on campus called 911 to ask what to do, swamping dispatchers who were trying to get information to police.

Administrators are looking at holding drills, like fire drills, so that people on campus know how to react.

Whatever USF does, it needs to improve communication to professors and students, said journalism student Carmel Delshad. She said she was the only one of a couple of dozen students in Cooper Hall who received a MoBull text alert.

"Cooper Hall, you might as well just turn your phone off," said Delshad, 21, a senior from Deltona.

But Delshad was better informed than her friend, senior Nadia Sulieman.

When the alerts went out Monday, Sulieman, 20, was reading in a study carrel in the basement of the main library. She said she didn't hear the sirens, nor did she get a text message.

A half-hour into the emergency, she took a break and used her laptop to sign on to Facebook — and read a message from Delshad saying police were searching the library for an armed man.

"This has to be a joke," Sulieman said she thought.

She got up and looked around the basement.

Everyone was gone. Police had evacuated the floor, somehow overlooking Sulieman.

"My only thought was there's a gunman in the library, and I don't have cell phone reception," said Sulieman, a biomedical sciences major from Tampa. "If anything had gone wrong, no one would find out until it was too late."

She walked upstairs. No one was around.

"It was the slowest moment of my life. It was scary. I had no idea what was going on."

She reached the library's main doors.

Police lined the other side of the entrance, with a crowd of students just beyond.

And there, outside, her cell phone buzzed.

The MoBull alert had arrived.

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.

Text alerts in gunman scare didn't reach all at USF, professor and students say 10/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 1:12am]
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