SMCC to review bomb threat response in face of criticism

Southern Maine Community College security directs traffic Monday morning in South Portland as the campus is evacuated after receiving bomb threats.
Southern Maine Community College security directs traffic Monday morning in South Portland as the campus is evacuated after receiving bomb threats. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 26, 2013, at 8:19 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Officials at Southern Maine Community College are preparing to review how they responded to Monday morning’s phoned-in bomb threat, which prompted them to evacuate their three campuses and cancel classes until 4 p.m., a college spokesman said.

The evacuation caused traffic tie-ups as more than 2,000 people used two roads to evacuate the main campus in South Portland. Several students who subscribed to text message alerts from the community college said they didn’t receive the notifications.

“We’re looking at everything,” said SMCC spokesman Matt Wickenheiser. “One of the bright sides is that this could be viewed as a very, very good training exercise. As a college, that’s where we go automatically. What can we learn from an incident like this?”

Wickenheiser said SMCC’s senior staff will meet Friday to review how the evacuation went and how they could improve responses to future emergency situations. SMCC staff also will meet with South Portland police for a similar review.

Law enforcement from four agencies — the South Portland and Portland police departments, Maine State Police and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, which provided bomb-sniffing dogs — investigated the bomb scare, which was phoned in at 8:42 a.m. Monday. FBI agents and eight bomb-sniffing dogs also were part of the mix, Wickenheiser said.

The evacuation order came at 9:30 a.m. and the South Portland campus was evacuated within about an hour, Wickenheiser said. Before ordering the evacuation, the dean who received the call had to notify other officials, he said, who then conferred with police on the right course of action.

While the threat concerned only the South Portland campus, college officials also evacuated SMCC campuses in Bath and Brunswick.

Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department said the agency was following up on leads Tuesday and had no new information to report. Authorities on Monday said they couldn’t trace the origin of the call reporting the bomb threats and that the caller’s voice was disguised.

Students and others left comments on SMCC’s Facebook page, some complaining about the volume of traffic as officials attempted to evacuate the campus, others noting they didn’t receive text message alerts notifying them of the evacuation order and others calling for better campuswide notification in emergencies.

Wickenheiser said more than 3,000 people are signed up for SMCC’s text message alerts.

“We’re going to look at things like, how effective was the text messaging? How well did the on-campus radios work? How do we deal with traffic?” Wickenheiser said. “We’re getting some really good feedback.”

As for traffic, Wickenheiser said, it’s a complicated matter to evacuate more than 2,000 people from a campus located on a peninsula, accessible by only two roads.

“We’re on a peninsula, so we are geographically constrained with getting on and off,” he said.

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