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Monday, 29 October 2007 07:08

Preparing for the Increasing Threat of Terrorism

Written by  Michael Keating, CDRP
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Prior to February 26, 1993 when the World Trade Center was bombed, there was little concern among American businesses that we would be a victim of a major bombing attack.

Since then we have also seen the tragedies in Oklahoma City and Olympic Park. There has even been an explosive device found on a golf course during a major PGA event! But even prior to 1993, businesses have fallen victim to bombs from disgruntled employees, corporate espionage and attacks through the mail.

The following guidelines can be used during preplanning to reduce the risk of a bomb attack.

Bomb Threats

Contact local authorities to determine what can be expected from them in the event you receive a bomb threat. Due to the many crank calls businesses receive, most police departments cannot afford to spend the manpower to assist in searching for a bomb.

Additionally, many police departments feel that because they are strangers to your facility, they are simply less qualified than you to search for a bomb. The logic is clear: You occupy your area 40 or more hours per week and know if something is out of place or suspicious far better than a public sector emergency responder would.

Also, find out if your police department has access to a bomb dog. Simply because they have K-9 units, it does not mean that those dogs are trained in bomb detection. Generally speaking, your police department will be pleased to share this information with you.

If your public safety forces will not assist in searching for a bomb, it will be even more critical that you have bomb threat checklists at each phone which routinely receives incoming calls.

The checklist is formatted to obtain critical information about the alleged bomb and bomber. Receptionists and those answering phones frequently should be trained in the use of the form and drills conducted as often as possible.

It is imperative that the caller be allowed to talk without interruption. Whoever receives the call should record the time and origin of the call, and write down the callers apparent gender, age, voice characteristics, accent, manner, and background noises (if any).

After the caller has finished, increasingly bold questions can be asked such as 'When will the bomb go off?', 'Where is the bomb?', 'What type of bomb is it?' ,' Why did you do this?' and 'Who are you?' Most actual bomb threats are not intended to hurt people (otherwise they wouldn't call), and you may find the caller very cooperative.

Businesses must plan what to do should they receive a bomb threat. On the surface, treating all threats as authentic and evacuating the building until it can be made secure may seem the wisest course of action.

However, many bomb threats are called in by people attempting to disrupt your business and a policy which calls for universal evacuation only plays into their hands. There is nothing to prevent the caller from repeatedly carrying out the same plan and cause your business to lose thousands of dollars or more in productivity.

Additionally, emergency evacuations can also lower employee perception of security causing hidden costs such as decreased employee productivity, lower employee confidence and increased turnover.

Of course, we cannot simply ignore the threat either. Even though the vast majority of bomb threats are false (I have never been part of a legitimate bomb threat in dozens of calls in my career), neglecting to take it seriously opens you and your company up to tremendous liability.

Perhaps the best answer would be to use the information acquired from the caller and execute a search of the potential areas where a bomb may be planted. Information gleaned from the call can significantly limit the scope of your search, allowing only a small percentage of your staff to be occupied in the process and allowing business to continue as usual.

Train these staff members how to divide and search a room and how to use partners to decrease the chance of overlooking anything important. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has an excellent brochure (Bomb Threat and Physical Security Planning, ATF P 7550.2) to help address those skills.

What Do We Tell the Staff?

There is mixed commentary on the issue of whether to notify your employees when a threat is made via the telephone. Generally speaking, the question must be asked 'What would we gain by telling the employees?' If you are planning to ask them to remain at their workstations performing their jobs, there may be no benefit to telling them about a threat.

Notify your search team casually and confidentially. If you exercise bomb threat management plan with any regularity, your staff will become familiar with the search team and their duties, and you should be able to manage easily any undue alarm.

There is one significant exception involving the issue of 'foreseeability. ' Generally, you may work under the assumption that a bomb threat is false until proven real. If, however, you have reason to believe your company is a special target, you may want to modify your plan to reflect that.

Special circumstances which have warranted such an approach in the past include government offices in your building, significant threats or actual acts of harm recently to your facility or other company owned facilities, other militant acts within your neighborhood, or widespread terrorism in the United States or directed at the United States.

Additionally, the call itself may warrant greater consideration if the caller is very calm, there is little or no noise in the background, the bomb is clearly described and/or a well thought out motive is explained. In such a circumstance, contact the police immediately and consider a partial evacuation of the area which would be affected.

Other Bomb Attacks

While not all bomb threats are authentic, not all bombs are announced by a call. Identify the most likely areas where a bomb might be placed in your facility. Bombs are most likely to be placed where the most damage can be caused.

Consider the access controls you have in place for computer, electrical and phone rooms. If not already in place, implement access controls in critical areas and limit personnel access to those with duties in the area. Review access controls periodically to insure they are being adhered to and are working.

Bombs are frequently placed in common areas where detection is unlikely. Restrooms are favorite targets, especially waste containers. Unlocked wall panels, large floral arrangements and artwork in common areas make attractive bomb hiding places.

Mail Bombs

Bombs through the mail are highly publicized but uncommon. The Unibomber got great publicity for what amounted to one attack per year. To put that in perspective, an average of four people die in auto accidents every non-holiday weekend in Ohio. Nevertheless, the following warning signs should be posted in your mail processing area and suspicious packages should not be moved:

  • No return address
  • Packages marked such as 'Personal and Confidential' or 'To be opened only by'.
  • Rigid/bulky envelope
  • Odor coming from the package
  • Address misspelled, incomplete, incorrect name with title
  • Excessive postage (not metered or postal tape)
  • Stains/oily residue on envelope
  • Wires or foil protruding from the package.

Package bombs are very dangerous and can easily kill or injure a person. Many are designed to detonate only upon opening. If you see a suspicious package, do not touch it. Call the authorities and allow their specialists to deal with the problem.


Bombs and bomb threats are becoming more a part of our lives in the United States. Most experts on terrorism agree that they will only increase. There are a number of things you can do to decrease the risk of becoming a bomb victim at your facility.

Additionally, proper bomb threat management can eliminate unneccessary downtime caused by false threats. A comprehensive and tested plan can help you mitigate the economic cost of bombs and bomb threats to your company.

Perhaps most importantly, cultivate an attitude that each employee is responsible for the security of their area. Those people who spend most of their time in one area are most likely to notice if something seems wrong or out of place. Bombs, and any security risk, are easiest to prevent and manage when detected early.

Contact your local ATF office for a sample bomb threat checklist, suspect letter and package indicators form (ATF I 3324. 1) or the Bomb and Physical Security Planning brochure.

Michael Keating, CDRP, coordinates the American Red Cross, Greater Cleveland Chapter and currently serves as disaster management chairman for the Cleveland chapter of ASIS (American Society for Industrial Security).

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