Responding to Bomb Threats - Part One

               In the last few months, Colorado has seen several incidents involving bombs and threats at different businesses, including a hospital.  In April, Earl Moore taped two small propane canisters together and tried to ignite them with a small pipe bomb.  Fortunately, the device did not go off.  Moore is also suspected in calling in a bomb threat to a hospital in Longmont, Colorado.  The hospital locked down to keep visitors and others out while the facility was searched.
               This past weekend, another suspect, David Lawless, broke out a window at a Borders bookstore in Lakewood, Colorado and left at least two small explosive devices inside.  Police responded and the bomb team detonated the devices in the store, causing minimal damage.  Lawless had been previously arrested for setting off a homemade bomb outside a Denver strip club in 2005. 
               So far, the motives of these two suspects are unknown.  Perhaps they just liked the idea of setting off some type of explosion similar to a pyromaniac wanting to start a fire. 
               The reality is that any organization could receive a bomb threat or even a real explosive device at any time without warning.  It is not common, but it is also not unheard of.
               Many business managers or leaders have misconceptions about handling bomb threats or downplay the risk, thinking that they are not a target.  However, this mistake could be costly.  A business not prepared to deal with potential emergencies may not recover.  One study noted that 1/3 of businesses that faced an unexpected emergency causing them to shut down never opened back up.  Mishandling a bomb threat, especially a real one, could be devastating and result in avoidable injuries or fatalities to staff or customers. 
               The majority of bomb threats are false – about 98% according to some sources.  One might decide to ignore the threat.  However, that could be extremely risky if there is an actual bomb such as in the cases mentioned earlier.  Imagine how employees or customers would feel to find out that they were not warned about a possible threat.  The best option is to conduct a search whenever a threat is received. 
               Most companies will call the police upon receiving a threat and this is where one common misconception comes up.  Most people believe that once they call the police, the responding officer will tell them whether to evacuate or not.  In reality, most departments will not make that recommendation based on a threat alone, without some more credible or believable information that there is an actual bomb in the building.  The decision to evacuate or not has to be made by the leaders of the organization.  Automatically evacuating at every threat could be disruptive, especially if a disgruntled employee or even a competitor finds out that they could easily stop all work with a simple phone call threat. 
               The general rule of thumb is to evacuate if a suspicious device is found.  But before getting there, a search must be done and should be done with every threat.  Employees most familiar with an area should be the ones to conduct the searches.  They will most likely know what is out of place or what doesn’t belong.  “That’s Mary’s backpack.  She always leaves it there.” 
               Sounds pretty simple so far, right?  The trick comes after the threat comes in and a search is started.  Once people start looking for something “suspicious” they will find it.  How will the incident leader know what is really suspicious or dangerous?  Local police will respond and be able to help look at suspicious items to evaluate the risk.  Still it may be difficult to tell a real bomb apart from poorly wrapped package.  In the first case above, the bomb left in the shopping mall was two propane canisters taped together with a pipe leaking powder and several burned up matches lying nearby.  That should get anyone’s attention! 
               Once a potential bomb is discovered, law enforcement will almost certainly take charge of the scene and help coordinate an evacuation.  Bomb squads can help determine how large an area needs to be evacuated.  For most small bombs, like a pipe bomb, shrapnel is the greatest danger and can be harmful out to 100-300 feet.  However, inside a building, the walls, ceilings and floors may offer protection from shrapnel so the actual evacuation area may not have to be that large, but it is better to err on the safe side and evacuate more than necessary. 
               This is where evacuation plans and continuity plans become critical.  For some organizations, evacuation may not be that difficult.  For others, it is a major issue.  Think of the hospital that received the bomb threat in Longmont.  The suspect who called in the threat might have easily left a bomb anywhere in the building.  The evacuation could mean moving patients, including possible ICU patients, out of the area and maybe even out of the building, transporting them to another hospital.  The logistics and challenges are almost overwhelming. 
               Every organization should have a written plan requiring a search for all threats built on the understanding that it will be the employees doing the initial search in most cases.  Companies also need to develop a procedure to decide when to and how to evacuate and continue operations off-site. 

               Click here for more specifics and information on how to respond to bomb threats.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another excellent post. The difference between a bomb threat (intention: business disruption) and finding a suspicious device, an attempting bombing, or a bombing (intention: injury and property damage) is very important. It is not well understood by employees, management, or executives. Your post is a step toward understanding. Best regards.