Review calls for UNF to invest in dispatchers after gun scare

A 7-page report prepared by a consultant was released on Friday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If the University of North Florida wants to avoid a repeat of the confusion that ensued after last month’s gun scare on campus, it must invest more in police dispatchers, streamline its emergency communications procedures and require “active shooter” training for all employees.

That’s according to a new report from Public Safety Consultants LLC, the consulting firm hired to investigate any shortcomings in the university’s response to the incident. School officials made those findings public on Friday after they were presented to the university’s Board of Trustees.

“The University plans to implement the consultant’s recommendations. Safety is a top priority at UNF and we're committed to ensuring the continued well-being of our students, faculty, staff and campus visitors,” President David Szymanski said in a statement announcing the report’s release.

DOCUMENT: Read the consultant's complete 7-page report

The campus was placed on lockdown after police took a 911 call at 5:47 p.m. Feb. 11 about a gunman at the UNF Arena Parking Garage. Students and staff weren’t notified until the university sent out an email at 6:11 p.m. warning students to seek shelter. Text alerts did not go out until about 7 p.m.

Timeline of events in Feb. 11 gun scare

5:47 p.m. – Dispatcher receives 911 call
6:11 p.m. – Email notification goes out
6:41 p.m. – University cancels classes
6:57 p.m. – Text, voice & email alerts go out
7:01 p.m. – Complete UNF alert sent out
7:22 p.m. – Police conclude there’s no threat
7:30 p.m. – UNF sends out “all clear” message

Source: Public Safety Consultants LLC

Police arrived at the parking garage within two minutes of the 911 call. They cordoned off the garage and searched all of the vehicle parked inside before determining there was no credible threat. They found the call was a hoax – a false report from a 74-year-old woman with mental health issues.

But even though the threat wasn’t credible, the university was criticized for not letting students and staff know about the potential danger sooner. Some students posted messages on social media and reached out to news organizations, saying they were never notified about the incident.

“First, I started getting a lot of texts from all my friends about it and I got the alert via Canvas and it said there’s an active shooter on campus, or possible active shooter,” student Justin Kercher said of how he found out about the incident on campus Feb. 11.

Another student was surprised to hear that his some of his classmates didn’t receive the alert. “That’s pretty shocking,” Carlos Osterling told News4Jax. “I didn’t hear about that. I received it, so I just thought everybody else got it.”

In response to the outcry, Szymanski ordered a complete review of the university’s emergency response. After studying the sequence of events, starting with the initial 911 and ending with the all-clear, Public Safety Consultants prepared a seven-page report documenting its findings in detail:

  • The report suggested reconsidering the use of Blackboard Connect for mass notifications. It said the system works well for student registration, but noted that it failed to help get the word out quickly in an emergency. In fact, it took the dispatcher 14 steps just to send the initial email.
  • In addition, the report found the school’s dispatch center is understaffed and suffers from high turnover. One dispatcher was working during the incident, a practice the consultant said “should not be continued.” And dispatchers don’t stick around because their salaries pale in comparison to those of other agencies.
  • Perhaps the most surprising finding, though, was that the university does not currently require all faculty to undergo “active shooter” training. In fact, it said dispatchers were taking calls from faculty during the incident “seeking information on what procedures they should be following.”

On a positive note, the report did find that the police response time was quick. In fact, many officers arrived on scene armed with patrol rifles and wearing bulletproof vests within two minutes of the initial 911 call. And the entire incident was dealt with approximately two hours and 30 minutes later.

Szymanski vowed to incorporate the consultant’s recommendations, though it’s unclear how long that will take. “It's important to me to understand how we can improve our response to both real and potential threats and how we can better communicate emergency information to the campus,” he said.