An Increase In Bomb Threats

An Increase In Bomb Threats

How educational institutions need to prepare and communicate

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 school year.

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.

PREPARATIONS

  1. Bomb scare incidents may take several forms:Phone call to the school system
  2. Verbal threats heard by students, staff or faculty
  3. Written threats delivered by mail or left on premises
  4. Emailed threats or posts on social networks
  5. 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 safety personnel.

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.

COMMUNICATIONS PRIORITIES

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 including:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Use an Emergency Notification System (ENS) with multiple communications methods and other safety platforms to quickly distribute messages that begin orderly evacuation procedures.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 a response.

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 is high.

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.

Digital Edition

  • Campus Security & Life Safety Magazine - November 2017

    November 2017

    Featuring:

    • The Importance of Fire Alarms
    • Increasing Security
    • Safe Learning
    • Time For An Upgrade
    • Bullying No More

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