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Apparent bomb threat shuts down North Hall

October 5, 2006

The potential bomb threat that led to the evacuation of North Hall the morning of Sept. 29 now appears to have been caused by miscommunication.

Public Safety contacted the River Falls Police Department at 8:50 a.m. about a phone conversation that made reference to a bomb in North Hall, Police Chief Roger Leque said. Police arrived on campus to investigate the claim, and eventually made a decision with Provost Charles Hurt that the building needed to be evacuated.

The decision to evacuate North Hall was precautionary, Hurt said.

“I made a determination to be safe and will do it again,” he said. “I cannot put faculty, staff and students at risk.”

A suspicious local phone call was made the afternoon of Sept. 28 to Linda J. Jordan, program assistant at the Academic Success Center in Davee Library, according to the police report. Jordan reported the call to Disability Services Coordinator Mark Johnson, and it remains unclear why law enforcement agencies were not notified at the time.

The female caller was reportedly “rambling,” and it was difficult for Jordan to understand what she wanted, Leque said.

The caller eventually said, “A bomb goes off in North Hall,” Leque said, adding that she then laughed and said she didn’t mean it.

The caller has been identified as a 55-year-old woman who suffers from an illness that causes cognitive and short-term memory problems. A continuing investigation will determine what action will be taken from this point forward.

During the conversation, the woman was inquiring about being a student to see what services would be available to her as a student with a disability.

The Human Resources department was contacted by Hurt to execute evacuation procedures, said HR Director Kathy Schultz.

“I was told there was a problem with the building,” she said.

Schultz said her staff was divided into pairs and assigned to separate floors to inform people to gather their personal belongings, shut off computers and vacate the building.

“I think what we did was very good,” she said. “Everything went quick and calmly.”

The decision to go to each office and classroom on foot was more effective than a fire alarm because it created less confusion and panic in the building, Schultz said, adding that North Hall does not have a PA system for mass communication.

“It really only took three to five minutes to get everyone out,” she said.
Students, faculty and staff who had been in the building were directed to the Student Center, where they were told to await further instructions.

Flossie Hughes, university services associate, said she and others at her table in the Student Center wrote down some suggestions concerning similar future incidents.
She said she questioned why the fire alarm wasn’t sounded, but then realized it may have been a potential hazard if it had been used.

An e-mail was sent to Hurt about issues and ideas the group formulated, Hughes said. He had a prompt return and thanked her for the many suggestions.

The messages offered to people on each floor to effectively evacuate the building were all different and confusing, she said.

“I questioned it,” Hughes said. “I was told it came from the chancellor, who is in India with my boss.”

After consideration and talking to other staff in the basement, Hughes said she knew it was more than just a fire drill.

After North Hall was evacuated, a police investigator was in contact with the woman who made the phone call, and the information he obtained led officials to determine that the building was safe, Leque said.

RFPD searched the woman’s residence for bomb-making materials and found nothing, according to the police report.

North Hall was then reopened around 11:20 a.m.

Hurt said he believes the situation was handled in the correct manner.

“We have learned some things about this,” he said. “This was a good learning event; it shows how we work with other entities, like the River Falls Police Department.”

If this incident was considered a bomb threat, people were to be at least 300 feet from the building, according to the online UW-RF Classified Employee Handbook. Yet signs were posted on North Hall doors directing students to alternate locations for their 11:15 a.m. classes. Students and staff could be seen standing near the building, well within the 300-foot limit.

Police and Public Safety placed a barricade several feet back from North Hall’s southwest entrance, but other doorways were simply blocked off with police tape.

Sharon Durbine, a North Hall custodian, said the building was not properly blocked from students.

She said she heard the incident was a bomb threat through gossip and was later told it was a gas leak, so the issue of it being a threat had her concerned about students walking up the steps to the building.

“It [North Hall] is heated with steam,” Durbine said. “I’m not stupid.”

Public Affairs Director Mark Kinders said it was a mistake to place the schedules on the doors. Administration will be reviewing the policies and practices that will be used in the future, updating everything so people are aware of the changes and procedures.

Included in the procedures will be who is responsible for searching a building in the event of a bomb threat, he said. Currently, the University has no employees trained to do so.

The UW-RF Web site has no information regarding the Sept. 29 incident because University officials were concerned about revealing too much information, Kinders said. Parents and community members have not expressed a significant level of concern, and he said Public Affairs would have responded had there been many questions.

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