Someone phoned in a bomb threat. Now what?

It’s an ordinary day, and the person at your front desk smiles as she chats with a co-worker. The phone rings, and her smile remains as she greets the caller, only to hear a nervous voice tell her there is a bomb in your building and everyone had better get out before it explodes.

 

What’s the next step? If you’ve been proactive, you’ve already developed a plan for this situation and trained the people who answer your phones about what they should do. If you don’t have a plan, the response is likely to be a panicked evacuation.

 Bomb threats are some of the most disruptive situations a school, church, business, or other facility is likely to encounter. While the overwhelming majority of such threats turns out to be pranks, the potential damage from an actual explosive device is so significant that experts recommend the threats be taken seriously.

 According to the U.S. Bomb Data Center, the federal agency responsible for tracking bomb- and arson-related incidents, there were 1,536 bomb threats reported in 2016. Of those, 529 were made to schools and 254 to businesses. The agency reported that there’s been a 33 percent increase in bomb threats to schools since 2014. Students know a bomb threat will be taken seriously and bring classes to a temporary halt, so whether someone has a gripe with the administration or really isn’t ready for that Algebra test, a threat -- whether it’s phoned in or takes the form of a note in a restroom or a comment on social media -- seems to be an effective way to cause trouble.

 The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cautions that every bomb threat is unique and has to be considered in light of the nature of the facility and who uses it. They note that law enforcement officials and facility managers are usually in the best position to determine whether the threat is credible and how to act.

 If your facilities don’t have a plan for dealing with this type of threat, it’s a good idea to develop one and share it with those who are most likely to receive the threat and those who will have to make decisions. It’s also wise to obtain the advice of local law enforcement agencies so your plan is consistent with their procedures. You can find information about developing a plan at the DHS website, and many organizations have posted their plans online. A quick Google search can provide a great starting point.

 Generally, the first step in a response is to remain calm and notify the authorities immediately. With phoned threats, DHS encourages people to stay on the line with the caller as long as possible while someone else makes the notification. Be polite and engage the caller by asking questions about the specific location of the device, when it is supposed to detonate, how it looks, and what type of explosive it contains. If the caller is willing to talk, ask whether he or she placed the bomb and why he or she did it. More information makes it easier for law enforcement to make the right response. The person taking the information should not hang up the phone even if the caller does, because it may be possible to determine where the call came from.

 If the people responsible for decisions about evacuation determine that’s the right course of action, evacuate calmly and carefully. If your facility conducts regular fire drills, sounding a fire alarm is an effective way to get everyone out of the building.

 A similar issue is what to do if someone discovers a suspicious item in your facility, such as an unusual bag or package that appears to be out of place. Here again, you should have a policy that spells out procedures to follow. Not every item is suspicious -- for example, people accidentally walk away from backpacks and purses all the time. On the other hand, if it appears someone tried to hide the object, if it has a strange smell or odd sounds coming from it, or if it’s in an unusual place, there may be reason to be concerned. People who leave bombs or other hazardous materials tend to put them in locations where they can do damage to people and important assets.

 If you do find a suspicious item, DHS recommends that you remain calm and refrain from touching or moving it. Follow your organization’s procedure, whether that involves contacting a facility manager or placing a call to law enforcement, and follow their instructions. If you can’t reach someone and are convinced that there’s an immediate danger, calmly evacuate the area. Moving farther away from an explosive device generally is the safest course of action.