Bomb Threats, Procedures, and Understanding Police & Fire Response

By Jeffrey A. Hawkins

Bomb threats have been one of those challenges that every security director has had to address; it is the nature of what we do and one of those things that can happen to any organization.

Recently there seems to be many more in the news, targeting a variety of different institutions for a variety of reasons; here are a few:

The University of Pittsburgh received more than 50 threats starting in mid-February of this year and even though an arrest was made, the threats continued.

Sun Chemical Company in NJ recently received a bomb threat and was evacuated. Local police along with the Morris County Sheriff’s Department K-9 and Bomb Squads investigated the scene.

In Holly Hills, Florida hundreds of people were evacuated after a bomb threat to an electronics store.

And in Murfreesboro, Tennessee a suspect was arrested after he allegedly threatened to blow up the U.S. Social Security Administration building.

Whether it is a disgruntled former or current employee, an upset student, an angry customer, or just kids pulling a prank, bomb threats are one of those situations that every security director cringes at because the key question is always “What do we do?”

We know by experience that almost every bomb threat is false and there is no explosive device (different sources put the actual number between 90% and over 98%). The caller is usually looking to disrupt operations and that is why they very often do it over and over again.

But in this day and age of terrorism (foreign and domestic) and the ability for a teenager to look up how to make an explosive device on the Internet, can you assume it is a false alarm?

There are certain things we all know are best practices, such as training all staff and volunteers that work at any location what to do in the event they receive a bomb threat (usually made over the telephone), documenting as much information as possible and then who to report it.

But the question remains, what do you do after the call is received?

The advice from “experts” and the amount of policy suggestions out there range from evacuate immediately to have staff search their immediate area for anything suspicious to calling police and take direction from them.

However, depending where you are located and the police resources available, as well as the policies of handing bomb threats by the local police and fire departments, what is done may lie solely in your lap.

Coordinating with local police and fire officials ahead of time is critical because it surprises many people, security directors included, that many responding agencies will not search your facility or have the resources, such as a bomb-sniffing K-9; they will “stage” in the immediate area, but will not search.

They will come in if you find something suspicious, however the responsibility rests with the organization’s own ability to search their facility and identify something “suspicious.”

But having worked the law enforcement supervisory side of the situation I know no police officer or firefighter who knows the facility better than the staff who work there, so how are they to know what is suspicious and what is not?

Plus, if there were an actual bomb, why would you put the first responders in a position of being hurt or killed if a bomb did detonate, who would respond then?

And frankly, even if there is a bomb-sniffing K-9 available, most locations are so large, one dog cannot adequately search a whole building (or buildings).

So the “how to search” part of this situation needs to be worked out well ahead of time, depending and what local officials will and will not do.

In terms of evacuation, do you automatically evacuate everyone if there is a bomb threat?

Some organizations do have this policy in place, and my question always is, what do you do with the staff, volunteers, students, etc., after you evacuate them? Do you know what a safe distance away from the building(s) is and have a place for them to stage? And what if there are less-than-optimal weather conditions (cold, snow, rain); the search may take hours, what do you do with these people?

And if your organization’s policy is to always to evacuate are you adding to future false threats? As previously stated most bomb threats are made to get a reaction and disrupt operations, are you feeding a situation that will continue to repeat?

Obviously there are other factors that weigh into what you do for a bomb threat.

Organizations that are high-risk by the very nature of what they do, have had actual explosive device incidents in the past, or have a threat that is made that is very specific in nature that would indicate a high probability of an actual device are all factors when determining policy.

But for most organizations, they do not fall into these categories and the question remains, what are you going to do?

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One Response to Bomb Threats, Procedures, and Understanding Police & Fire Response

  1. Joseph J. Armstrong June 28, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Initially the receiver of the threat needs to get all of the information possible both about the threat and the device. Why are you making the threat? Does the speaker have an accent? Is the speaker agitated? Will the threat talk to you? If so, keep them talking while someone else calls security / police. What kind of bomb is it? Where is it located? What does it look like? Do you notice any sounds on the phone like heavy traffic (cars or trucks), airplanes, sirens or horns, trains, other people, silence? Any information is better than none. While it is unlikely that anyone except a professional would be calm enough to react this way, if employees are provided with a checklist/notepad that they can access from their desk or work station, it could be very helpful in getting information for responders. Prior planning and practice is also important! Train like you fight – as if it were real. Staff can be very helpful but professionals should do the work if possible.

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