An Increase In Bomb Threats
How educational institutions need to prepare and communicate
- By Scott McGrath
- April 01, 2017
A recent study by the Educator’s School Safety Network notes that “bomb scares” have
increased—more than 106 percent in the 2015-16 school year from the 2012-13 school year. Contrary to what many believe, phone and suspicious
package threats aren’t just “end of
school year” events designed to dodge exams,
but appear evenly distributed across the full
The study examines the trends and the evolving risks of school safety
in the wake of terrorist attacks in both the U.S. and abroad, and
reaches an alarming conclusion: “Based on our analysis of bomb threat
data and trends, the sobering reality is that an explosive device WILL
be detonated in an American school with significant consequences,
and we must be ready.”
This dire threat assessment, combined with a steady increase of
bomb scares and a clear trend line, is pushing school safety officials to
new levels of preparation. The study points out that despite the trends,
the majority of bomb threats are false alarms. The risk is complacency.
One incendiary device among thousands of incidents may have tragic
consequences in a school.
- Bomb scare incidents may take several forms:Phone call to the school system
- Verbal threats heard by students, staff or faculty
- Written threats delivered by mail or left on premises
- Emailed threats or posts on social networks
- Suspicious packages detected
Each has its own response characteristics and the Department of
Homeland Security provides excellent resources to assist in response
planning: A resource page at “What To Do – Bomb Threat”, a robust
2016 PDF brochure with clear instructions called Bomb Threat Guidance,
and a very widely used Bomb Threat Checklist that many institution
use as a template provided to key staff likeliest to receive
threatening calls on official lines. The resource page also offers links
to resources and training opportunities for facilities managers and
These resources provide robust best practices for planning and
preparation. The Checklist in particular offers specific guidance to
managing phone threats—what questions to ask the caller, what to
listen for, how to focus on the call to maximize the information you
collect on a threat call.
In the event of a bomb threat most responses include evacuations,
lockdowns, or closures. In this regard, communications are critical.
The priorities in first response to a threat are ensuring mobilization of
critical responders and the tasks of ensuring that individuals evacuate
premises quickly and effectively. This official messaging informs the campus community what’s happening, what actions to take, where to
go and provides updates as the incident progresses. Schools also have
a responsibility to manage concerns and suggest orderly responses to
concerned parents and caregivers who often learn of the situation
quickly or may encounter alarming media reports.
Communications will vary in method based on a number of factors,
such as the size and type of institution, risk assessments from responders,
likelihood of media attention and resources such as Public Information
Officers (PIOs) available to larger institutions and responsible
administrators at others.
A solid communications plan should be an essential part of your
overall preparation. Communications need to address a range of priorities
- Ensure rapid and effective incident communications. Confirm
that 9-1-1, police and other agency responders are engaged quickly,
but also find ways to get the closest responders activated and working.
- When an evacuation order is issued, communicate with evacuation
organizers and key staff to take immediate action in an organized
fashion according to your plans.
- Use an Emergency Notification System (ENS) with multiple communications
methods and other safety platforms to quickly distribute
messages that begin orderly evacuation procedures.
- When initial activation is complete, provide appropriate follow up
messaging that tells more about the status of the situation, communicates
with wider audiences such as parents and media, providing clear
guidelines to avoid traffic or other impediments to rapid response.
- Be prepared for the all clear communications, summarizing findings,
building clearances and instructions to the full community.
Clear and authoritative language matters. Script templates that capture
the best practices around message content for all these phases as
an integral component of your response plans.
THREATS IN THE NEWS
One increasingly common positive development is that response plans
for incidents like bomb threats provide significant opportunities for
schools to build or deepen relationships between school safety and
public safety responders. Bomb scares often require local law enforcement
presence as well as FBI and other investigators.
For example, a typical phone-in bomb scare event at Texarkana College
in Texas was covered in local media coverage: “FBI joins probe into
bomb threat at college.” The article notes that Texarkana Police and
Fire responders were called in to assist the school’s Department of
Public Safety, and the FBI stepped in to assist with the investigation.
In a similar response to an email threat at Assumption College in
Worcester Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Police assisted local
law enforcement and the school’s Department of Public Safety in coordinating
Incidents run more smoothly when both school safety officials and
public safety responders- Police, Fire, EMS, SWAT and 9-1-1 have clear
lines of communication. Rave Mobile Safety has found, for example,
that one unexpected advantage of the Rave Panic Button used in many
schools to call 9-1-1 responders while at the same time notifying those
closest to an urgent situation, is that many times Superintendents of
Schools or college Presidents create new relationships with emergency
responders that did not exist before.
In Milford, Massachusetts, for example, the Chief of Police now
meets regularly with the Superintendent of Schools to discuss safety
issues and plan safety exercises. 9-1-1 centers at SNOPAC in Snohomish
County, Washington have forged new relationships with the county’s
school administrators that has streamlined response, and prepared
both sides to respond to situations with a better understanding of how
to collaborate more effectively.
In the larger view, an awareness of the need for interdisciplinary and
inter-agency coordination has grown considerably over the last decade,
with very positive results.
WHEN THE RISK TURNS REAL: SOME EXPERIENCES
FROM THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS
When the terrorist explosions detonated in downtown Boston on April
15, 2013, the impact on the city and surrounding communities was
dramatic, and as we know, the event impacted several educational
institutions as well. The University of Massachusetts was particularly
impacted, with an incident and lockdown on the UMass Boston campus,
later declared to be unrelated, and on another campus, the discovery
that one of the suspects was a current student. Schools around the
regions were closed or put under lockdown. The tragic murder of Sean
Collier on duty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology three days
after the event raised anxiety levels even higher.
A panel of higher education emergency managers from Boston
area schools described their responses in a discussion hosted by Rave
Mobile Safety and moderated by Dr. Gary Margolis. The discussion
provided insight into some of the specific ways that standard emergency
planning was called into service during the weeklong events.
For example, Boston College needed to utilize a plan to provide food
services to dormitory students who remained in lockdown for more
than a day.
Another critical focus was communications. All panelists mentioned
that the emergence of social media platforms as a key method
to provide timely official updates to concerned parents as well as the
immediate community provided an unprecedented communications
channel. Feedback from parents and the media on the use of these
communications tools was highly positive. Parents in particular noted
that it was reassuring to get updates on the hard work being done on
campuses to keep students safe.
Preparing for a bomb scare does require a comprehensive approach
that starts with strong planning to address the specifics of responding
to an active threat, managing evacuations and closures, communicating
with your community in a clear and collaborative manner. The cost
Despite the high cost in planning for and responding
to bomb scares, with an ever-increasing number
of reported threats, and the clear escalation of risk
from actual terrorist attacks – preparation and
response is more critical than ever.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of CSLS.