Manhattan bomb threat: lessons learned
Bomb threats are nothing new. Paris and Brussels have educated more Americans that terrorist attacks are a scary possibility, but the Jewish community has known that for a long time.
Dealing with a bomb threat is never easy, but in today’s environment, planning and cool heads are critical. Click here for a tool for bomb threat planning.
After the NYPD issued an all-clear, we spoke with Aaron Strum, Executive Director of The Jewish Center about his crazy day and “lessons learned”. This is what we learned:
- Planning is where its at. Even the best organizations can make mistakes if they’re “just winging it”. If you receive a communication (phone, mail, email) what should you do first: evacuate or lockdown? Who’s going to call the police? Do you know what to tell them? Making those decisions during planning sessions is preferable to making them under pressure.
- Get everyone on the same page. Often Jewish institutions house multiple organizations under the same roof. Every organization in the building should have the same plan, and there should be a single leader calling the shots. Everyone in the building should have the same training and participate in common exercises and drills.
- Know who’s in charge…and who’s next. Ok, the call comes in, what’s the next step? Should you evacuate or shelter-in-place? There has to be a clear delineation of command. At the same time, there have to be backups, with full authority to make decisions, in place.
We recently reviewed the emergency plans for a school that included the instruction, “If a threat is received, find Mr. Levine …” What if Mr. Levine is out of the building? The plan was silent. Should anyone call 911? The plan was silent. Everything stopped until Mr. Levine was found. Plans must be flexible and adaptable, rather than reliant on a single person.
- When the cavalry comes over the hill, they’re in charge. OK, you have your plan and you like it. One element of your plan is to designate someone to be at the door to meet the first responders. Brief them about the details, but you’re probably going to have to repeat yourself when the next wave of police come (The UWS event had the precinct, Emergency Service Unit, Strategic Response Group and the Bomb Squad respond). Someone may overrule your plan. Assume that they know what they’re talking about.
- You must be able to communicate.
- Internally. That means PA systems, intercoms, walkie-talkies, texts, runners, whatever. Everyone in the building has to know what is happening so that they can execute their role in your plan.
- Externally. Everyone will want to know what’s going on and you will be deluged by phone calls, texts, emails. Plan on that. Quick tips:
- Forward your calls. Parents want to know that their kids are safe. Have the capacity to forward your calls from the main number to a cell phone or an alternate landline.
- Mass notification system, phone trees, email groups or mass texting. There are many ways to do it, but people want to know something. There are services and software that can efficiently handle the problem using multiple channels (simultaneous email, landline and cell phone calls/texts) or you can set up your own system (e.g., free services like Google Hangouts or search for “group texting”). Bottom line: set something up ahead of time, draft sample messages and be ready.
- Media nudnikim. Somehow, enterprising reporters will find you. Remember, your first responsibility is to your constituents, not the media. You don’t have to talk to them, at least until you have time to breathe. (See our Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations, p. 171 ff)
- Determine places of assembly. So, you’re evacuating and it’s 10° outside. Where should you go with your dozens or hundreds of students? Another school, a public place? In this case there was a synagogue building close by (which went into lockdown, at the advice of the NYPD), but don’t wing it. Find the best place and have a discussion with them ahead of time. Often, you can develop a mutual assistance agreement (See our Disaster and Crisis Response Systems for Jewish Organizations, p. 111 ff). Also remember that you need dismissal/parental pickup plans that will work in the place of assembly.
- Know your building. Before issuing an “all-clear” someone will have to search every place in your building that a bomb can be hidden.
- Lock unused spaces. As a matter of course, keep unused spaces in your building and closets, elevator rooms, mechanical rooms, etc., locked. If spaces need not be searched the search will go quicker.
- List hidden spaces. Every building has nooks and crannies hidden to most people, even to those using the building every day. Make a list of those places, floor-by-floor. When the search for a device is underway, you don’t want them to miss anything.
- Do a post-incident postmortem. Take the time to have the key players sit down to decide what went right and what went wrong. Then modify your plans accordingly.