CofC seeks to fix its bomb-threat blunder 

The college took a half-hour to alert students, and it got a major fact wrong

Students reported seeing police on campus carrying AR-15 rifles 15 minutes before they received an official word from their college.

Paul Bowers

Students reported seeing police on campus carrying AR-15 rifles 15 minutes before they received an official word from their college.

On Tuesday, the day of the College of Charleston bomb threat, Randy Beaver could be seen pacing St. Philip Street in a black jacket and a gray fedora with a bright red feather. He was talking to police and college officials, constantly checking his phone, and trying to figure out what exactly went wrong with the college's emergency warning system.

The bomb threat came in at 10:39 a.m. In all, it took nearly half an hour from the time the threat was made for CofC students to start receiving text messages warning them to evacuate the campus. And once the messages got out, they contained a major error: They said a bomb had been found on campus when, in fact, none had been found.

Beaver is the College of Charleston's director of environmental health and safety, and one of his duties is to oversee Cougar Alert, an emergency notification system for students and faculty. We now know what went wrong with the messaging. According to Beaver, when the threat came in, a college employee pressed a single button to send out text messages, automated phone calls, and emails (the program is voluntary, and users can select which type of notification to receive). Unfortunately, the preset messages for the three different media were significantly different. Students who had opted in for text notification got this message, in some cases multiple times, starting at about 11:08 a.m.:

"This is a Cougar Alert. A bomb has been found on CofC campus. Prepare to evacuate. Follow instructions from authorities."

The text messages weren't the only ones that contained the error. One student received an email at 11:07 that began: "This is a Cougar Alert. Warning. A bomb has been found on the College of Charleston campus." Cougar Alert and college President Glenn McConnell quickly sent follow-up emails clarifying that no bomb had been found yet, but students never received a text-message correction, leading some to speculate as late as mid-afternoon that a bomb had been found.

click to enlarge Randy Beaver (right) says "the buck stops with me" when it comes to Cougar Alerts. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • Randy Beaver (right) says "the buck stops with me" when it comes to Cougar Alerts.

The voice message was the only one that got it right from the beginning, saying that there was a "credible threat" against the campus — but no bomb, as of yet. However, it went out a few minutes later than the text and email, with students starting to receive calls at about 11:10.

By the time the Cougar Alert messages had gone out, police were already on campus carrying AR-15 rifles, knocking on dormitory doors, and gearing up to check buildings for bombs. Some students heard rumors via text messages from their friends a full 20 minutes before they got the official word from the college.

The 29-minute gap between threat made and alert sent is all the more troubling because the average active-shooter incident on a school campus — one of the main contingencies for which the college created Cougar Alert in the first place — is over in much less than half an hour. Police magazine placed the average length at 12.5 minutes in 2013; a 2014 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that the majority are finished in five minutes or less.

Beaver is well aware of the time constraint. He goes by an even shorter estimate of three minutes that he says he got from the Department of Homeland Security. But on Tuesday, he says he was working on a different timeframe and focusing on alerting the students in the affected buildings.

"If it was an active shooter, [the delay before the alert] wouldn't have been that long," Beaver says. "This particular event, we were being told, was a bomb threat. We needed to get people out, so in the case of this, we had officers go into classrooms, but we also pulled fire alarms at Craig Hall because everybody knows, 'A fire alarm is going off, I've got to go outside.'"

Frantic mode

Freshman roommates Matt Wornow and Nolan Barrett live in the Liberty Street Residence Hall, across the street from Craig Hall, one of the buildings that was specifically mentioned in the bomb threat. Here’s how they describe their Tuesday morning:

Barrett: "We woke up around 10:52-ish, we got a text. Our pledge brother lives in Craig, and he was like, 'We're getting evacuated, there are cops all over.'"

Wornow: "We both jumped out the bed, looked out the window, and there were a bunch of cops swarming to Liberty."

Barrett: "Assault rifles, K-9 units, bulletproof vests."

Wornow: "And then basically we said, 'Oh my God, what do we do?' And then all of a sudden the fire alarm was just faint, and then it started going off, and then we've got pounds on our door and then we were just in frantic mode."

Barrett: "Walked outside, everyone went into the Wentworth parking garage, and we were just told to stay there, and everybody ventured off basically. We got three Cougar Alerts in a row saying there was a bomb found on campus."

Wornow: "They told us there literally was a bomb on campus."
Law enforcement officers brought a bomb robot to the scene on St. Philip Street. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • Law enforcement officers brought a bomb robot to the scene on St. Philip Street.

Jack Handegan, a senior at the college, says he started hearing police cars roaring onto campus around 10:50 and got a text from a friend around 10:55 saying that police were on the ground with AR-15s. It was another 15 minutes before he got an automated Cougar Alert phone call from a robotic female voice explaining that it was only a threat, not a found bomb.

"You see police officers running with assault rifles near a college campus," Handegan says. "I can't imagine being a freshman and seeing that, not having had an alert for almost 10 minutes. I was interested to see that the average school shooting lasts 12-and-a-half minutes ... You know, different scenario, but is the system ready?"

The fix

The College of Charleston bought its Cougar Alert system in 2007, shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre. The on-campus shooting prompted schools across the country to sign up for similar programs, and CofC opted for one provided by Blackboard, a company that also runs the school's Cougar Card student ID and meal plan program.

After the bomb threat had been cleared on Tuesday afternoon, CofC President Glenn McConnell wrote in an email to the student body that Cougar Alert "proved less than effective in a real-time situation" and vowed to "address it immediately." Since Tuesday, Randy Beaver says he's met with the president three times. He says they've been reviewing the messages in email, voice, and text formats to make sure they match.

On Tuesday, Beaver says he approved the messaging without actually reading the content of the text message that would be sent out.

"I actually approved the texts, I went online and saw everything was right, and I asked somebody else to send it," Beaver says. "So I told the president the buck stops with me."

A caller made a bomb threat against the campus at 10:39 a.m. Tuesday, and Beaver got word of it at 10:45 via an automated text message from Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch: "Bomb threat in progress, 66 George St." School dispatchers later got confirmation from county dispatch that the bomb threat was "credible," he says.

An officer suits up to inspect a campus building for bombs. No bombs were found, although the college initially told students that one one had been found. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • An officer suits up to inspect a campus building for bombs. No bombs were found, although the college initially told students that one one had been found.

Within five minutes after Beaver received the text message, police had set up a command center on campus. Beaver was away from his computer and didn't have his iPad handy, so he says he called another college employee to set up the Cougar Alert. There was some deliberation about which message to send, and Beaver says they spent three to five minutes coming up with guidelines for which buildings to evacuate and which parts of campus to shut down.

"In a sense, we were trying to decide, 'How much disruption do we create?' Historically, bombers don't threaten. When I was at Purdue, we had bomb threats all the time during finals week," Beaver says.

In all, Beaver says about 13,000 people received voice messages, 7,000 received text messages, and 7,000 received an email (some people had signed up for multiple alert methods). Looking forward, Beaver says he wants to encourage users to opt in for text messages rather than voice messages, which tend to take a few extra minutes. He has a few other ideas.

"I want external sirens. Redundancy is good," Beaver says. "Clemson and USC have it, all the major colleges have it."

Another idea: a system that takes control of projectors in every classroom to broadcast a visual alert during an emergency. "We could send a Cougar-type alert, and the projector sends it across whatever is being displayed in the classroom," Beaver says.

Continuing his brainstorm, Beaver pulls up an app on his iPhone. USC Beaufort offers its students a free smartphone app, USCBsafety, that gives easy access to emergency procedures and a one-button option for calling or texting the school's Department of Public Safety. He says he's interested in having CofC create a similar app. "Of course social media is 20 minutes ahead of us anyway, and we're always going to be chasing that gap," Beaver says.

Coincidentally, Beaver says he was in a meeting with college officials last Thursday to talk about increasing the efficiency of the Cougar Alert system when he received a text message about a murder-suicide that had just taken place on the University of South Carolina's campus. There, a similar system called CarolinaAlert sent out a message to students within 15 minutes saying there was an active shooter on campus.

As with the Cougar Alert text messages, the CarolinaAlert proved to be not entirely true — a SLED spokesman later clarified that there had never been an active shooter. But the warning succeeded in getting students to seek shelter and stay away from the crime scene.

At CofC, Beaver says he has reviewed the preset warnings to make sure they match across voice message, text, and email now. The next step is to speed the process up.

"The intent," he says, "is to solve that gap issue."

  • Paul Bowers


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