Five bomb threats put security officials to the test
YARMOUTH, Maine—Preparation led to five successful campus-wide evacuations after bomb threats this month, but there are always lessons to be learned, including those about “vague threats,” security directors involved told Security Director News.
Five bomb threats were called in last Friday, Sunday and Monday to the University of Texas-Austin, North Dakota State University, Hiram College in Ohio, the University of Texas-Brownsville and Louisiana State University. Arrests have since been made in the Brownsville and LSU cases, and authorities have determined those suspects have no connection to each other, according to news reports.
No bombs were found in sweeps of the campuses. Campus officials are working with local law authorities and FBI officials in their investigation on the other threats, and an FBI report on the incidents is expected next week.
Campus officials said that while they are pleased with their efforts, there is always room for improvement, and the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators expressed some concern that the “wholesale evacuations” could lead to copycat threats elsewhere.
At UT-Austin, a caller Friday said that bombs were scheduled to go off in multiple, unspecified buildings—the campus has 165—within an hour-and-a-half to two hours, said Dr. Bob Harkins, associate vice president for campus safety and security. After alerts, some 50,000 to 70,000 students, faculty and staff—the population of a small city—left the premises.
Harkins credits most of the evacuation success to the university’s “building management system.” The campus police force of 66 officers was not large enough to screen all of the buildings within the necessary timeframe, he said, “so we alerted our building management system.”
Larger UT-Austin campus buildings have full-time building managers, while smaller facilities assign an employee, such as an administrative assistant, or in the case of a lab, possibly an instructor, as emergency managers. All of these designees receive training four times a year in what to do in case of an emergency, Harkins explained.
“We got the message to them to walk their buildings and see if there was anything that didn’t look right. The buildings were swept, but as it got closer to the deadline, the decision was made to evacuate,” he said.
Using the campus’ emergency messaging system and setting off sirens on the campus that are usually used for severe weather alerts, “we had people out of the buildings within five minutes,” he said.
Harkins, at the time of his interview with SDN, had not yet had his scheduled critique with building managers to go over the details, but had an early insight. “We need to do better—teaching people to get away from buildings. Our current training tells people to move 300 feet or one block away from the building,” he said, but when it’s a campus-wide threat, there needs to be clearer instruction on getting off campus all together.
“Most campuses are pretty good with one-building incidents,” he said. “But we need to go back and scratch our heads and say how do we handle the vague threat? I would encourage other campuses to use a building management system.”
Vague threats are what concerns Anne Glavin, president of IACLEA. Glavin, the chief of police and director of police services at California State University-Northridge, while emphasizing she knows few details about the recent rash of bomb threats, said that such threats need to be analyzed case-by-case.
“There are a whole host of elements to be considered to evaluate threat authenticity,” Glavin said. “Wholesale evacuation is not always the best way to go. It’s not an exact science, but each campus should have an evaluation process for best practices. History shows us that specific bomb threats are more dangerous.
“My concern with these (mass) evacuations is that they will encourage more threats,” made by a student who wants to get out of an exam, for instance, she said. “They may cause more problems for the campus.”
For smaller institutions, such as Hiram College in Ohio, with 1,300 students and 60 buildings about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, bomb threats are unheard of. The threat there late Friday afternoon was the first in memory, said college spokesman Thomas Ford.
Ford, a member of the college’s campus emergency response team, said the team immediately was convened after the threatening call. “We’ve been on high alert because of campus violence in the past few years,” he said, including last February’s shootings at Chardon High School, less than 25 miles from Hiram, in which a student is charged with shooting six classmates, three fatally.
“The whole system worked amazingly well [on Friday]. At our debriefing on Monday we were complimented by police authorities and the FBI,” Ford said. “We were fortunate that it was late on a Friday afternoon, classes were finished and many students had already left the campus.”
The total evacuation at North Dakota State University, with 14,400 students, was the first in 20 or more years, said Ray Boyer, director of the University Police & Safety Office. “It was managed extremely well under the NIMS [National Incident Management System] protocol and all phases ran smoother than any planning or exercises have indicted,” he said.
“We found one of our biggest success stories lies in our monthly notification testing to all of the campus. In these monthly tests, we provide direction that in a real emergency, we ask that emergency lines remain clear for emergency use and that updates will be provided via our notification system,” Boyer said. “We stated this again in the actual emergency notification, and people refrained from calling any of our phone lines to obtain information.”
Another takeaway from the NDSU security team? “We have sent our thank-you to all students, employees and guests, without whose cooperation we would not have been able to evacuate the campus in as efficient manner, as they did, and maintained our communications lines,” Boyer said. “This greatly adds to the ability for law enforcement to focus on the incident and resolution.”