U continues to refine emergency responses

Three bomb threats in the past year have allowed the University to continue to test its methods.

With roughly 2,100 students affected Tuesday by the third on-campus bomb threat since April, the University has a lot riding on its emergency response system.

Tuesday’s threat was sent to a University police general e-mail account at 11:46 a.m.

It was discovered four hours later and buildings were cleared just after 4 p.m.

Of the three bomb threats, two were sent via e-mail to general accounts. In September, Weaver-Densford Hall was named in a threat sent to a University address.

Steve Johnson, University deputy police chief, said the University police account the threat was sent to is not meant for crime reporting.

“This is the first time somebody has e-mailed our Web site with a bomb threat,” he said. “The moment we knew about it, we responded.”

Johnson couldn’t name a specific purpose for the account, but did say people typically send e-mails to it looking to find more information about the police department.

Tim Busse, communications director for University Services, said the University police general account is checked once or twice daily.

Typically, he said, only one or two messages per day are “legitimate” – such as general complaints or inquiries for UMPD – and the rest are spam.

When e-mails are sent to that address, senders receive an automatic reply, Busse said, which tells the sender if the concern was in regards to an emergency, he or she should call 911 to report it.

Purdue University has student notification. The school pioneered emergency-alert text messaging for participating members of its community and was among the first universities to create a Facebook group to serve the same purpose.

Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg said the University responded appropriately to Tuesday’s threatening e-mail, given the circumstances.

“Truly, if somebody wanted to issue a bomb threat, they wouldn’t do it by e-mail,” she said. “People do not monitor general e-mails like that.”

For its part, the University started an emergency-notification Facebook group in September because of what administrators called “lessons learned” from last spring’s Virginia Tech shootings.

More than 3,000 members have joined the group to date.

But with three threats in less than a year with no bombs found, students often see bomb-threat notifications as someone crying wolf.

Andy Swanson, a political science junior whose class was called off Tuesday evening, said he would generally give police the benefit of the doubt in regards to assessing the severity of bomb threats.

“It’s hard to take them seriously,” he said. “My first thought was that somebody missed their homework deadline.”

University police Lt. Chuck Miner said the April threat could have started a trend after some time without such a scare at the University.

“That’s been very unfortunate in the sense that (threats) may be giving other people ideas,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t take each threat seriously, as Miner said police do.

“It’s like if a fire alarm goes off three times a day,” he said. “The third time it could be the real thing, so we always have to treat it like it’s a real emergency.”

Despite the inconvenience they’ve caused, the spike in bomb threats on campus has given the University a chance to refine its response procedures.

Busse said as with anything, practice makes perfect in cases of emergency response.

“Unfortunately, we’re getting better at these because we’ve had more of them now,” he said.

And after a communication snafu in April in which some students didn’t hear about the bomb threat for hours, Busse said the University continues to emphasize prompt notification.

“We want as many redundancies as possible to reach as many people as possible,” he said.

Terry Cook, director of the Department of Emergency Management, said his department works closely with University police during a bomb threat.

He said the response time for sending e-mail notification has significantly improved, from hours in the April threat to about 12 minutes for the threat to Weaver-Densford Hall. Tuesday’s threat, however, saw a 25 minute response time for e-mail notification because of what Cook called “system problems.”

In the next four to six months, Busse said text-message notification could be a reality on campus, which would eliminate concerns about the efficiency of e-mail.

Taking threats case-by-case

Because some threats are easier to solve, investigators operate on a case-by-case basis.

“Each case is different because there’s different details, different scenarios,” Miner said. “In each case, there’s always something to start with generally, to track down.”

Miner, who supervises the University police investigative division, said police look at the big picture before narrowing their focus to individual suspects.

When potential suspects are identified and police establish probable cause, they forward the case to the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

Then, the attorney’s office determines charges against the suspect, which Miner said in this type of case would likely be making terroristic threats – a felony.

As for punishment by the University, Sharon Dzik, the director of the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, said a student would confront a “pretty harsh” penalty for sending in a bomb threat, including suspension or expulsion.

University spokesman Dan Wolter said in an e-mail the decision to cancel classes is made by the Provost Tom Sullivan and Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien.

In Tuesday’s case, University police and the College of Liberal Arts Dean James Parente were consulted in the decision.

“As a group we make a decision,” Johnson said. “(We had) to evacuate and search the area as best we can and cancel classes for the evening and that was done fairly quickly.”

The search for a potential bomb can be as tricky or simple as the building it is supposedly located in, Johnson said.

“If it’s a laboratory, holy moly,” he said. “In cases where it’s an unusual building, we’ll frequently bring people with,” like someone affiliated with facilities management who is familiar with the layout.

Suspects haven’t been named in any of the three bomb threat cases, though Miner said the investigations are active.

Miner said police believe they know where Tuesday’s e-mail originated and are now working to determine the sender’s identity.