How to respond to bomb threats on campus

Education security experts share best practices

"I don’t think there is a best practice to evacuate an entire campus. Each campus is unique. When you have urban campuses that go through city streets and have many, many different stakeholders, it’s almost impossible to evacuate an entire campus in the same way you would evacuate another campus," she said. "Really what you have to concentrate on is the prevention and the investigative techniques and hopefully, you never have to get to that point."

Lang also acknowledged that every university is different in how it responds to a threat.

"There are some universities and even other schools from a general standpoint, who as soon as they get a bomb threat, they evacuate. I don’t believe that is the best practice, mainly because of total disruption," he said. "If that is going to be your mode of how you operate all of the time, you’ll never hold classes, especially during finals or whatever. If they know your practice is to evacuate everyone if you receive a bomb threat, that word is going to get out and that’s not good for maintaining continuity of operations."

Timm said that there are still competing philosophies on exactly what actions should be taken when a bomb threat is received. While some as previously mentioned will evacuate immediately, Timm said others will move to a safe location outside, such as a football field, or shelter inside a building.

"The misconception that many universities and entities in general are under is that if we do get a bomb threat, well then the bomb squad comes and looks for the bomb. Of course that’s not true," Timm said. "Bomb squads remove bombs that have been found, they don’t search for them. That would never make sense because while something is going tick, tick, tick potentially; they don’t want to be orienting themselves to the layout of a building."

School security personnel should also follow several guidelines before allowing people to re-enter campus buildings in the aftermath of a bomb threat. In the event a suspicious device is discovered, Lang recommends establishing a perimeter around the package, evacuate any facility in the immediate vicinity and wait for the bomb squad to arrive.  

"We train our people not to touch anything. Don’t put blankets over it. Basically, don’t do anything. Get away from it and let the professionals handle it," Lang said. "There are so many people who say 'yeah I saw it sitting there and I wanted to move it away from the main area.' No, what you do is you don’t move the package you move people and that’s the bottom line."

Everyone agrees that thorough preparation through tabletop exercises and drills is essential to making the right decisions in the event of an actual threat on campus.

"We run the gamut. We do a lot of lecture training and tabletop scenarios. We’ll also do mini-drills and then we’ll do full-scale drills and we try to get as many people involved as possible," said Lang. "The more and more you do drill, the more and more you do tabletops, the more you get people to think about it, the better off you’re going to be rather than for the first time having someone panicking and saying 'tell me what to do?' Sometimes that’s too late."  

At Penn, for example, Rush said that they conduct a set number of drills every year dealing with a variety of threats and that they also look at incidents that have occurred throughout the country during the year, bringing together school security and local authorities to discuss how they would handle a similar situation on their campus. "You’re always testing your system to make sure you’re ready for whatever is presented," she said.

In addition, Rush said that their emergency preparedness plans were recently put to the test by Superstorm Sandy as it slammed the East Coast.

"That was a good way to expose people to how we would handle an emergency in a situation that turned out to be not as bad as predicted (in Philadelphia). We had our emergency operations center opened the entire time and we coordinated with the city of Philadelphia’s operations center communicating back and forth throughout," said Rush.

Establishing a relationship with local, state and even federal authorities is also paramount when it comes to coordinating a response to a bomb threat or any other type of emergency event on campus.