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News | State employees unnerved by bomb threat response

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted April 27, 2007

MONTPELIER — On April 20, an employee working at 133 State Street, which houses the Tax Department and several other divisions of state government, found an unwelcome message in an elevator.

The note read: “I hate government! I hate Vermont! You’ve taken all my money for the last time and you’re going to pay!” In addition, the note said that two bombs had been placed in the building, that people would die, and ended with profane rant.

The building, an imposing five-story marble structure, sits to left of the State House.

An employee found the note, turned it over to management, and the state responded. The Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) and the Montpelier Police Department was dispatched to handle the situation but some employees felt the response was inconsistent. Concerns arose over how BGS handled the situation and now the union representing state employees is calling for action.

The Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) is calling for an independent review of the state’s actions relating to the bomb threat. Some employees believe BGS gave insufficient communication about the bomb threat.

“The state’s communication with the employees was woefully inadequate, and demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity, particularly given the recent events at Virginia Tech and the increase of bomb threats throughout the nation following the tragedy in Virginia,” said Annie Noonan, VSEA’s executive director.

Most employees were notified by e-mail saying the building had received a bomb threat and were instructed, “not to panic.” Others reported that some were notified only by word of mouth. The major concern raised was that nobody was ever ordered to evacuate and employees wonder why.

Some employees at the Department of Innovation and Information were told they could leave early and work from home, which added to the confusion in the building, union officials said.

“There was no evacuation ever ordered. The BGS Commissioner [Tasha Wallis] and the deputy security officer [Jason Smith] never sent out an e-mail stating about the letter or even that anybody was going to come in the building,” said Elizabeth Emmons a Tax Department data technician who works in the building. “We were instructed to search our own workspaces for suspicious package of any sort and at no time did any firefighter or police officer ever enter the building or leave the building.”

Emmons was equally shocked when she heard employees would be charged with personal time if they left work. For her, that was unacceptable.

“One person worked all day and at 3:30 she was so sick to her stomach just at the thought of ‘Is there 30 seconds left on this thing? Where is it?’” Emmons recalled.

Many employees are not satisfied with how BGS handled the situation and believe if there hadn’t been a breakdown in communication, then things would have run more smoothly. But BGS officials maintain their response was appropriate.

“[We’re] satisfied with how it went because of what we have in place at this point,” said Smith. “We started a process a while back to look at how we can further our communications on these buildings and we want to continue on this track. Left with what we had to work with on Friday, I thought we did a great job.”

As far as addressing VSEA concerns, Smith said there is more to the story that meets the eye.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what should happen during a bomb threat. A lot of people say, ‘Well, the local police should come in and do this, the fire department should come in and do this, and the state police should come and do this.’ That’s not their roles and that’s not what they do. But I guess the main lesson that we learned is that we do need to spend some time on discussing with the employees what’s reality, what’s going to happen, and do away with some of the misinformation that’s out there during a bomb threat,” said Smith.

For Emmons it’s not a matter of expectations, but what is the proper response to protect workers in the event of another bomb threat.

“I believe the state was not concerned about employee safety that day. The way I think it should have gone down was until a proper professional decision was made as to what step to take. The employees should have been evacuated out of that building. Suppose if somebody found a device that said, ‘30 seconds,’ what do you do? We’re not professionals. We don’t know how to disarm a bomb and [we were] left in that building,” Emmons said.

But Smith maintains that worker safety comes first and each bomb threat is handled differently.

“You can’t look at a bomb threat at another building, facility, or a school and say ‘Well, they reacted this way.’ It’s very important for everybody to realize that there are several different ways to react to a bomb threat and it’s very important to know that how we reacted this time may be different the next,” Smith said. “Bomb threats are made to disrupt activity and evacuating buildings aren’t always the best thing to do because you can put people into the danger zone and if someone knows your procedure and you do the exact same thing every time, you’re going to put your employees in more danger than you are by treating them differently.”

BGS has not yet responded to VSEA’s request for an independent review and work continues at the State Street offices.

Given all that was in the news last week, Emmons believes the state can’t simply assume a threat is nothing more than a prank.

“You have to take things seriously and prove that the letter is false and that you didn’t have to worry about that. Last week was a very tragic one for the entire United States and anybody that’s a little on edge takes these to heart. I think employees have the right to know what was going on instead of from another employee,” said Emmons.