Bomb scare: what really happened

November 28, 2012 02:05 pm
Please allow me to add to and clarify some of the information related in the Observer’s article regarding last week’s bomb threat at the county facilities.  

The initial threatening call was placed to the clerk’s office, in which the caller stated that multiple bombs were set to go off throughout the county (not specifically the county facilities or courts.) This resulted in the pushing of the alarm button which goes directly to the Sheriff’s Office. It is an older system that provides only limited information. We therefore did not know the nature of the emergency or even the precise location. Dispatch was informed of the threat shortly thereafter via phone and this was relayed to responding officers. 

Though the call was made to a county facility, it is also within the city limits of La Grande, so personnel from both agencies responded. Sheriff Rasmussen was the first to arrive, and was on scene one minute after receiving the call, according to dispatch radio logs.
La Grande police Lt. Reddington was also on scene and he and Sheriff Rasmussen devised a response plan which included Sheriff’s Office and Police Department personnel. We enjoy an excellent relationship with La Grande PD (as well as the state police) and at times like this when neither agency alone has sufficient resources to adequately respond, this smooth and practiced cooperation is most useful.

Nonetheless, in the early minutes of this event there were only three law enforcement officers on scene. In these types of events there are many things that must be done, all of them at once (including notifying occupants, coordinating evacuation if that is deemed necessary, securing the location and a larger perimeter, actually searching for the device and any suspects, and communicating with a variety of officials). Very quickly we learned that Union was only one of many counties to have received the threats, simultaneously. As it turned out, 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties received the same sort of threats at the same time. Coupled with the fact that similar mass threats had occurred in two other states in the past few weeks, we felt the credibility of the threat and therefore the likelihood of any device was low. 

Expediting information transfer

Nonetheless, to be wrong in such an assessment has dire consequences, so we proceeded to respond as though the threat were real. While blocking access to the building is obviously a high priority, notifying those already within the structures is even more important.  In the minutes immediately following the threat Sheriff Rasmussen was in the process of notifying occupants, as well as placing phone calls to expedite information transfer. Remember that there are several buildings comprising this complex, all of them occupied, and that the bomb threat was not at all specific to one facility. In fact some inside the facilities chose not to evacuate after being informed of the broad nature of the threats. 

We were not able to post officers or deputies at each door because there are over a dozen doors and not near that many law enforcement personnel. Part of the response plan implemented by Sheriff Rasmussen and Lieutenant Reddington was to post officers on opposite corners of the block to see and warn approaching civilians not to go in, and/or to detect suspicious activity. That action was in progress but not yet complete when the person mentioned in the article went into the building. Based on dispatch radio records it appears this person entered the facility shortly after the initial call went out, so the incident and the response were still very much unfolding. As additional deputies and officers arrived, they were placed in appropriate places to secure the facility.

As an aside I might mention other factors which had a bearing on our response. The caller had said there were multiple bombs placed throughout the county. We therefore had to consider whether to evacuate and search the road department, golf course and airport buildings, among others. How broad should evacuations be? As we all well know, a bomb, regardless of sophistication, has tremendous potential for destruction. Should we evacuate the middle school across the street? The university? How about dispatch, also across the street? How disruptive is all that? What sort of message is sent to the person placing such calls (or copycats)? It was for these reasons that we allowed each department head to decide whether his or her office should evacuate or not.

We will continue to assess and improve our systems in place for future threats and evacuations to facilities.

Captain Craig Ward is with the Union County Sheriff’s Office.