What We Can Learn from One College’s Emergency Notification Fail
My home state is South Carolina, and my city is Charleston, and while I receive many news alerts throughout the day, a bomb threat on the intimate, downtown campus in my own backyard was of keen interest. The College has an enrollment of a little over ten thousand students, with the primary, downtown campus covering only four acres.
In a nutshell, on February 10th of this year, the college received a bomb threat phoned in through a 911 call.
A caller reported two bombs on campus; one in a residence hall and one in the student center; students were evacuated from those buildings and classes held in the surrounding area were canceled for the afternoon.
Police announced about 4:30 p.m. that the campus had been cleared and no bombs were found. But that followed a great deal of confusion from earlier in the day. The college sent out an alert that a bomb had been found, then sent an alert a few minutes later saying that police were still searching the campus.
That alert was issued through the Cougar notification system, posted to social media and immediately shared widely.
The college said the false alert was caused by a college dispatcher who misunderstood the police department’s codes.
Additional messages came out that notified students that classes were continuing as normal while searches of the campus were ongoing..
As summed up by one student: “Our campus is so small & centrally located a bomb threat in one building is a threat to the entirety of campus, no reason to be having class.”
As detailed in the local news outlet, The Post and Courier, a release of the 911 call recording helps explain why police showed up on campus with rifles; the caller identifies himself as Zach under questioning from the dispatch operator. A certain accent can be detected, such as pronouncing “about” like “aboat” and “out” like “oat.” He sounds significantly stressed and on edge, possibly a factor that led officials at the time to say they were responding to “a credible threat.”
“I have a bomb at the College of Charleston,” the caller tells the operator twice.
When she asks where, he tells her the Beatty Center, spelling it out correctly when she asks him and pronouncing it like “beety.”
“I’m thinking about going there right now and just shooting everyone. I (expletive) hate this place,” he says. “Right now I just want to (expletive) hold this gun to my head and shoot myself.”
He says he has placed the bombs on a timer and they will explode in five hours. He refuses to give more details about the bombs.
He threatens to go there and start shooting people several times. When asked why, he says it’s because nobody ever acknowledged him and he doesn’t have any friends.
“Get everybody out of the Beatty Center,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt them, but I will. If you don’t evacuate it, I will hurt them.”
The call ends after he says, “I want to shoot someone right now, and then I want to shoot myself.”
The county confirmed the caller hung up right at the end of the recording.
The call brought out scores of police to close off streets in the heart of campus while the bomb squad searched the Beatty Center and several other nearby buildings. No bomb was found, and the area reopened about 4:30 p.m.
The first alert from the college said a bomb had been found on campus. Another message was sent out a few minutes later saying a bomb had not been found but a bomb threat was received.
Officials never told students that the caller had also threatened to shoot people. They said they withheld that information to avoid panic.
There was some public speculation that the bomb threat may have been a diversion for a bank robbery in West Ashley the same morning, sending scores of Charleston police to the college. Investigators have considered the possibility that the two incidents might be linked but have found no evidence to confirm that theory
In the immediate wake of the incident, many students complained about the college’s communications:
Whether your campus is a business center, an office building, a sprawling, multi-acre complex, or a single location, getting information right is the goal and point of emergency notification.
Any Crisis Communication must:
- Build, maintain or restore trust
- Improving knowledge and understanding
- Guide and encourage appropriate attitudes, decisions, actions and behaviors
- Encourage collaboration and cooperation
Notification Alerts received at the right time with the correct information reduce panic, help keep the public safe during an emergency, and are designed to provide clear instruction.
What added insult to injury for this particular College, was the post-event statement made by the College’s President, Glenn F. McConnell which reads in-part
“Our emergency notification system – Cougar Alert – proved less than effective in a real-time situation. In the aftermath of today’s events, we have learned that there was a glitch in the system, programmed years ago – which resulted in our communication protocols being compromised, and the initial “bomb found” message was sent out electronically in error. Also, the mechanisms for communicating quickly through the Cougar Alert system – by phone, text and email – did not reach all constituents. Plain and simple, that is unacceptable, and I will work with our emergency management task force to address it immediately.”
Notification systems must be tested and trained upon on a regular basis.
Employees must be given the tools needed to perform effectively – this includes training and testing on a regular basis.
For the College of Charleston, we encourage a PREDICT. PLAN. PERFORM.® methodology:
The PREDICT Phase
- Assess your current readiness level;
- Identify and classify the critical risks;
- Ascertain critical decisions, analyze gaps;
- Identify infrastructure needs; and
- Define reporting and investigating requirements.
The PLAN Phase
- Develop the strategy;
- Construct the plan, including policies & procedures;
- Identify key personnel; and
- Develop training and awareness programs.
The PERFORM Phase
- Establish protocols for implementation
- First responder/community involvement;
- Test exercises;
- Audits/reviews, updates, and compliance.