Earlier this year, a string of bomb threats forced evacuations at several of the nation’s largest college campuses including Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. Not only do these incidents disrupt the lives of students and faculty members, they also pose significant challenges to those responsible for safety and security and the affected facilities.
Among the most prominent of these challenges, aside from the imminent dangers of an actual explosive device being placed somewhere on a campus, university security managers must take into account where they’re going to evacuate all of their students and employees to. Where a campus is located geographically, urban or rural, also plays a big role.
"If you’re looking at 20,000 or 25,000 people, where do you put them? Where do you evacuate to?" asked Robert Lang, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. "It goes back to your specific situation and what your plans are. Can you move them off the facility to a specific area where you can still maintain some semblance of control that will allow for the searches to take place?"
According to Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety at the University of Pennsylvania, time is of the essence when it comes to investigating threats made against a campus.
"You absolutely investigate very quickly. What was said? How did the threat come in? Go through that building or area of campus quickly and identify if anything is out of place or an object is found," she explained. "Universities would most likely work with their local counterparts who have ordinance disposal units. A building’s occupants know the use of the building better than anyone, so if you find an object or something that is suspicious, then you’re going to take it to the next level and evacuate the appropriate area."
Lang said that it’s also important to examine a threat’s credibility before ordering an evacuation.
"What you try to do is evaluate what the bomb threat actually contains. What is the bomb threat?" asked Lang. "Is it credible? Are there specifics within the bomb threat? There’s a big difference in saying 'we put a bomb in your facility' versus 'we put a bomb in the second floor closet of your facility and it’s designed to go off in 30 minutes.' You have to evaluate each specific instance."
School security expert Paul Timm, president of security consulting firm RETA Security, believes the decision to evacuate should be left up to first responders.
"I like to do what my emergency responders recommend. Can you imagine being a provost who says 'oh yeah, that’s not credible' and then something goes boom? Based on what authority and experience did you make that decision?" said Timm. "I like to collaborate with emergency responders and follow their direction. That doesn’t mean I might not have a security director or public safety director who I value their opinion, but I think I like to move with my emergency responders. Of course, in all cases, we’re going to do some assessment and make a decision, but I think yielding to your emergency responders is the way to go."
According to Timm, many campuses are simply not prepared to receive a bomb threat. Timm said that all schools should use the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ bomb threat checklist, which includes specific things that should be asked and taken note of when a threat is received to help weigh its’ credibility.
"Every main desk should have a bomb threat checklist within arm’s reach. Unfortunately, what we find is that is that it was on page 32 of the binder and no one really looks through the binder, so no one knew where to go or it’s kept in a file cabinet, or the person who knows about it is not there to receive the phone call," he said. "Right off the bat we’re behind the eight-ball."
When a decision is made to evacuate, however, Rush said that a number of different factors play a role in how a school will carry out the order.