Sprawling universities pose security challenges

Published April 17, 2007

Florida State University did the drill as recently as last summer.

With some students acting as victims and one playing the role of aggressor, school staffers put out the call that an "active shooter" was on the loose in a residence hall.

Campus police responded, secured the campus and took down the shooter. When the smoke from firecrackers and smoke bombs cleared, all the students were safe.

Would the story have the same ending if what occurred Monday on the Virginia Tech campus took place at FSU?

"Knowing what we know today about this incident, I'm very proud to say we wouldn't change anything," FSU police Chief David Perry said. "We would refer back to that exercise and use the processes we already have in place."

But, Perry acknowledged, successfully carrying out such a plan in a real-life situation is difficult on a college campus, especially a large urban one like FSU.

"It takes a good working relationship with our law enforcement partners in the city and county and with our campus community partners as well," Perry said.

Campus police departments throughout the country likely will be re-evaluating their response plans in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings.

Those response plans have been evolving since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the deadly 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. All kinds of agencies and institutions -- including Florida's colleges and universities -- have put more thought into handling the unthinkable.

And yet, Florida's higher education institutions remain far from immune to what happened Monday at Virginia Tech, some officials here say.

Emergency response is "not an issue taken lightly at campuses," said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. "But at the same time, you can't plan for every possible whatever."

Universities often sit on hundreds of acres, with miles of unpatrolled boundaries. Classroom and administration buildings are usually open to the public. And ask any pizza delivery person how easy it is to get inside a typical dorm.

The University of South Florida in Tampa has trained a 40-person police force to carry out "active shooter intervention," said Lt. Meg Ross, spokeswoman for the USF Police Department.

How the officers would respond to a particular situation would depend on the facts on the ground, Ross said. Ordering an immediate lockdown of all campus buildings might sound like an easy call, but if the location of the gunman is unknown, the end result might be locking the attacker in with his victims.

Chief Michael Zelanes of the University of Central Florida Police Department agreed that completely sealing off a large college campus during a shooting isn't practical. And while students have swipe cards to enter dormitories, Zelanes said, such security measures can easily be bypassed by a determined intruder.

"It isn't hard," he said. "All you have to do is wait until someone comes out."

If an emergency arose at the University of Florida, campus police would immediately send an officer to the area to minimize the threat to students and staffers, said Lt. Mitch Welsh. Depending on the scale of the emergency, officers would call in other university staffers to assist.

"It's a fluid situation with an active shooter, and things change quickly," Welsh said. "Part of our training program includes instructing our officers in the quickest routes into and out of certain areas."

Each time an incident such as Monday's shootings occurs, Welsh said, his officers study it to make their plan more effective.

"This is something you train for, but you pray you never see," Welsh said.

Most university officials agree that while police response is critical, communication is key.

USF has an instant messaging system that informs students about things such as upcoming concerts and parking crunches, but it could be used to inform them about campus crises, said Jennifer Capeheart-Meningall, the vice president for student affairs.

Currently, several thousand students are registered to use the system. But in light of Monday's tragedy, "we will begin to discuss whether to expand it," she said.

UCF officials don't have the capability to send automated calls to every campus telephone, said Zelanes, the police chief. Students and staffers are told to report suspicious behavior to campus police and can be notified by campuswide e-mail in the event of an emergency, he said.

At UF, officials can communicate with students through e-mail. But with the advent of instant messaging and text messaging, they've begun to consider more up-to-date technology.

"One thing we've been looking at is a reverse 911 technique for notifying students in the event of an emergency," said UF spokesman Steve Orlando. "Students could be alerted using a prerecorded message that would call their cell phones to tell them there was a threat in their area.

"We'll probably speed that up now."