How to respond to bomb threats on campus

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.

"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.

"It’s extremely important. It’s almost the most important thing," said Lang. "If you’ve never talked or met with half of the first responders who are going to ultimately be at your doorstep when one of these things happens, you’re way behind the curve here on getting a legitimate response. Because if you don’t have that working relationship, many agencies will just walk in and tell you what to do versus having a cooperative relationship where you can assist them and they can assist you."

 

 

 

 

 

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