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Event Emergencies: Dealing with a bomb threat

Part 2 in a series

Tables are set, the staff is ready. The doors open, guests are entering, the bar has a nice, steady flow, servers are offering hors d'oeuvres—in general, all seems to be going according to plan.

Then a staff member appears and says, “Hey boss—we found a backpack under one of the dinner tables and no one seems to know who it belongs to. Should we move it to the kitchen?”

Or the client, the venue manager, or security supervisor pulls you aside and says tersely, “We just received a phone call saying there’s a bomb on the premises.”

What do you do?

In this article, I will address pre-ignition; that is, meaning what to do before a bomb explodes.

The emphasis is based on finding a suspicious package, or receiving a bomb threat, and what to do next.
As a refresher, read (or reread if you haven’t already) my article on dealing with an active shooter situation on Click here

Finding a bomb or dealing with a bomb threat situation at an event is certainly an uncomfortable subject but needs to be addressed. You must have and execute a plan and provide directions that will save the lives of event guests, the client, your staff, or even your own life. Do not be caught off guard or be unprepared. Denial that a bombing will never happen at one of your events is not a sound strategy.

And while this is secondary, having a good plan can also help you win business from unprepared competitors. I saw where a $50,000 wedding was plucked from another caterer because the staff did not carry flashlights during an outdoor evening event.

My hope is that you will never be faced with a bombing situation and have to use the points covered here.

The information provided here is basic and general. I researched a number of sources, but go beyond what is presented here. Talk with your local authorities, too, as there are often special circumstances regarding your local area and venues.
The best and most recent comprehensive information is supplied by ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the U.S. Homeland Security

Pre-planning a is must

Do you have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place to deal with a bomb threat, or a protocol in place to follow if staff find a suspicious package or bomb at an event? Most catering, staffing agencies, and event production companies I contacted do not.
An EAP is a written document required by particular OSHA standards [29 CFR 1910.38(a)] and its purpose is to facilitate employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies.

Planning and training helps to instill confidence in your staff and leaders. Planning reinforces the value that those in charge care and also reduces anxiety associated with panic.
If there are venues you cater for on a regular basis, create plans specific to each. Review with the local authorities for general points and site-specific protocols and resources.

What to do long before the events starts

Talk with your insurance provider. They may have guidelines and offer a discount to offset the EAP development investment. Review with your staff the EAP separately from your typical pre-event shift meeting. Make sure your staff has written copy, and understand the goals, plans, and protocols. The information might save their life one day. You will find that your staff will appreciate that you have addressed this subject with them.

On site protocol

Once you are on site, become acquainted with the security personal responsible for the event. Sometimes security staff is in-house, often outside service is hired, and in some cases even local on-duty police are in the mix. Get walkie-talkie radio channels and cell phone numbers shared, coordinated, confirmed, and written down. Here are some other pointers:

Know how to connect with varied local authorities in the event of an emergency.
Secure entry points to the site long before the event starts. This means all doors: back, service, side, and delivery, as well as loading docks, are secured from unauthorized entry. “Secured” means that the doors are locked to anyone trying to gain access from the exterior, or that someone is posted to inspect those entering and is determining the contents of bags and packages being brought into the venue. There should be a list of expected deliveries to be received.
Walk the site. Be aware of all exits, and where they lead in case you need to evacuate.
Determine evacuation routes and alternatives and explain this to staff during the pre-event meeting.
Check the door jambs and windows. Do they show signs of recent tampering or forced entry? Are they locked?
Look for people, packages, boxes, and containers that are out of place or seem unusual. Trust your instincts.

The challenge with IEDs (Improvised Exploding Devices) is the imagination of the bomb maker, often being creative and not following a certain best practices in its construction. That is, bombs are not all made of pipe, pressure cookers, wrapped up sticks of dynamite, or a bottle of nitroglycerin.

What to look for

Most bombs are homemade and do not resemble the look we are used to seeing on television and in the movies.

Look for wires, a short section of steel pipe, a cell phone or timer attached a package, or a pressure cooker, for example. These are pretty good indicators. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.       

When you come across an unusual and/or out-of-place container, do not move it, as you may trigger the device. You can, however, carefully check it out.

Here are some pointers.
Is there labeling?
Is handwriting on the package exterior of poor quality? Misspellings?
Does the package smell like almonds, diesel fuel, kerosene, or gasoline?
Is the package leaking?
Are there strange noises such as ticking or gears grinding?
Hold your hand close to the package and without touching it, see if you can detect any warmth emanating. Do not pick up, touch, or move.
Are wires protruding?
Is a cell phone, pager, clock, or timer attached?
Is there anything that looks like a pipe, flares, or explosives, or compacted putty or clay?

Answering yes to any of these questions is cause for concern and needs to be investigated. Ask around, “Does anyone know about this suspicious package?” Keep others from opening the package or entering the area where the package is located. Then, let professional bomb technicians determine whether the threat is real or not.

Do not use your cell phone or walkie-talkie near the package as it may trigger the device.
Move away from the location of the suspicious package.

Remember, just because one package has been found does not mean there may be others. Often a second device has been placed to explode as first responders arrive.

So how does the bomb get on site?

Here are some scenarios:

The bomb was brought in, dropped off, and/or hidden. Sometimes bomb packages are placed to blend in with the surrounding area. Bombs can be transported and concealed in a briefcase, shoulder bag, backpack or gym bag, local logoed shopping bags, or plain cardboard boxes. Detonation could be from a timer, a clock, a geared mechanical device, or activated from a distance with a cell phone or pager.
The device could be delivered by a local courier or person acting as a delivery service. This is called bomb by proxy. Follow the directions for inspecting suspicious packages. This is especially important when it is an unexpected delivery. If no one knows about the delivery, ask the delivery person to stay until confirmed.
Another possibility is that the bomber is “acting” as a guest, but waiting for the appropriate time to set off the device by remote detonation. Look for people who may be acting suspiciously or who do not seem to fit into the crowd well.
In the worst case, the bomber is actually wearing the explosive device and is trying to blend in with the guests. This is known as a suicide bomber. 

Treat every threat as real until the authorities tell you otherwise. Note that fire alarms are pulled occasionally as pranks, but buildings are cleared none the less.

For some events, especially those of high profile, staff and vendors are often cleared from the venue and trained K-9 units can be seen trolling the site, sniffing around hours before the event and then once again just before the opening.

At these high profile events all staff must be wearing a certain colored wristband on the correct wrist, pass through a metal detector, and all bags, purses, backpacks, musical instruments, and tool bags are searched. I always tell staff to leave all personal belongings in their cars or at home.
Sources tell me of a potential bombing stopped because staff identified a person posing as vendor with a wristband placed incorrectly on the opposite wrist.

Remove all trash cans in public areas, which often serve as a depository for explosive devices. Servers need to be the roving real estate at events collecting the debris and glassware from guests.
Avoid storing materials and boxes under tables and buffets. I know it is extra walking and time. However, it is safer as it does not create a space to hide an explosive device.                                               

What to do if you find a suspicious pack, a bomb, or receive a threat

If you find a suspicious package, don’t touch or move it. Call the authorities.
If not sure, call the facility security and/or local authorities. Ask them to spare the lights and sirens as they approach the venue. Lights and sirens can frighten guests and could also alert the bomber.
Clear the event space quickly and quietly.
Avoid making an announcement that a bomb has been found. This announcement will trigger panic among the guests and if the trigger person is present, incite him or her to activate the device.
Stay out of elevators, use the stairs, stay away from windows, don’t light matches, and ask everyone to stay off of their cell phones.
One source suggested that during EAP training, staff should be taught that an announcement be made three times—such as, “All event staff report to the loading dock immediately to unload the 18-wheeler.” This is insider code to evacuate the guests quickly and quietly ASAP.
Or, move people by saying that the photographer needs to photograph the room. Get everyone out quickly and quietly, as we are trying to save lives and not tip our knowledge to the bombers. They may also be in the room, or close by, and decide to move up their plan.
Spare the gathering of personal belongings. Get staff and guests out of the venue. This is not the time to be a hero and debate cutting the blue or red wire or carrying the device to a container filled with water.
Direct staff and guests to move at least 300 feet from the building. Tell them to assemble away from the parking lot (which is generally packed with vehicles), as secondary devices may be present there.

What to do when authorities arrive

If police are present, get your hands up above your shoulders, spread your fingers wide, and listen for instructions.
Don’t point, shout, or yell at first responders. Avoid quick movements toward officers.
Do not stop to ask officers for help or directions when evacuating. The police will direct you. They may also contain, search, and detain you until all clear is announced. They might direct you to get down or push you down on the ground. This is for your safety.
Give the police any information you can about the situation when you are asked; location, description, etc.
Direct them to where the suspicious package is located when asked.
Provide any additional information and answer any questions the authorities have.

Pre-event meeting refresher

Make a short EAP review template to be discussed at every pre-event meeting. Here are some thoughts:
Reminders: “Does everyone remember the active shooter three action points?”
Have a designated meet up place and an offsite alternative, and cover this with your staff. Use these gathering places to perform roll call and see who is missing.
Announce: “Today the two meet up locations are A onsite and B offsite.”
Reminder: “Does everyone know what to do when you hear the announcement regarding unloading the 18 wheeler truck?”
Have a site specific evaluation plan and explain to staff.
Always know where the two closest exits are and be aware of alternatives.

In an extreme situation…

If you find you can’t get out of the building or far away from the bomb, here are few Hail Mary moves to act on quickly:
1. Find and get behind anything to shield you from the blast: another room, behind a column.Turn multiple tables on their sides, creating a layered shield. Get behind the bar and clear away any adjacent glassware that might shatter. Stay away from windows. The glass will shatter and fall all over.
2. Get as close to the ground as you can. Blasts tend to elevate up and out.
3. Grab several napkins or tablecloths to cover your head and face from dust.
4. Plug your ears with your fingers.
5. Open your mouth slightly to equalize air pressure internally. Often more bodily damage is internal damage due to shock waves created by an explosion.
6. Breath slowly through your nose.


Make EAP plan. Check with local authorities to fine tune. Discuss in depth with your staff in a special meeting. Review points at each pre-event meeting. Stay safe.

Roy Porter is the Activities Director at Engage Works located in Los Alamitos, CA. Roy is an inspiring thought provoking and popular speaker at the annual Catersource Conference and Tradeshow addressing a diversity of catering subjects. He can be contacted at [email protected] with questions about this article or his other talks.

Roy Porter

Activities Director, Engage Works, Inc., Los Alamitos, CA

A California native, who prior to returning to catering, spent several years in direct marketing as a planner, strategist and copywriter on numerous lead generation, sales conversion and customer retention campaigns.

Recognized as consummate and approachable hands on innovator in performance improvement and training off-premise catering staffs for plating (FOH), table and bar service.