February 16, 2007 was an interesting day.

At the time, I was the Public Relations Director for the Ashtabula regional campus of Kent State University. That meant I handled media communications. And if the dean wasn’t available, I was the face and voice of the campus.

This photo and story is what greeted us the next morning in the Star Beacon.

On this particular day, I was walking through the cafeteria on my way back to my office after lunch when Terrence, one of the admission counselors, stopped me. He told me that a bomb threat had been left on his office voicemail that morning. He had just gotten to the office as he had things to do that morning.

He was on his way back from notifying facilities management about the call.

Let me stop here to give you a picture of our campus. As a regional campus of a major university, we had about 1,200 students at the time and the vast majority were older adults. There are never more than about 500-600 students on the campus at any time. They were in any of three buildings. The vast majority would be in the largest building, Main Hall. (If you’re familiar with the Ashtabula Campus, the Health and Science Building was not there yet.) 

And Ashtabula is textbook small town Ohio. Meaning word travels FAST!

It was fortunate that I had run into Terrence because by the time I got back into my office, the local radio news director was already blowing up my phone. In the few moments since Terrence had notified the facilities management, they had called local Ohio State Highway Patrol. When they dispatched a patrol car and fire department, local news people heard it on their scanners.

I rushed to the facilities management office across the hall from me to ask what was going on and what I needed to do. The decision had been made, with the help of law enforcement, to evacuate the campus. Not something we had a plan for or drilled for.

I headed off to the farthest and smallest building to get people out of there. There were only two faculty members and a handful of students. I rushed back to Main Hall.

As I came around the corner to the back entrance everyone used I saw the fire truck sitting up next to the building. I asked the firefighters what they knew or needed to know. The one guy said, “we’re just waiting for the police to show up.”

I walked in the door as two cops were coming down the hallway. I gave them the same question, and one cop said, “We’re just waiting for the fire department to show up.” I asked, “Don’t you guys have radios? They’ve been sitting right outside for five minutes.”

I hurried back to my office to see that several more news reporters had left messages. It was a really slow news day. I checked in with facilities and was given the OK to clear myself from the building.

Media to Frank:” Is there anything you can add?” Frank to Media: “No. Only I would add that there’s nothing to add.”

As I walked back out the side doors to the parking lot, I got about 100 feet or so when the reporter for the local paper grabbed me for comments while we stood next to a Highway Patrol car. (You can also see an Ashtabula City Police Car parked up right next to the building in the photo) There wasn’t much I was even allowed to say. I could answer a few questions specific to certain things about the campus, but all questions about the threat itself were to be directed to the State Highway Patrol and they knew that.

Even after getting home that evening, my personal phone was kept ringing by news media. I finally got fed up at one point and berated a poor reporter from a Cleveland TV channel for calling me about something as nonsensical as a bomb threat 60 miles away. “I’ve been sending you news releases for seven years about the good we are doing for the community and you’ve ignored me. Now you’re bothering me at home about a stupid bomb threat? You know you’re supposed to be calling the State Highway Patrol. Do you need the number?”

Needless to say, within a couple of months, the campus had a new evacuation plan and actually ran a couple of drills. It was terrible to find out how outrageously under prepared we were.

We also found out that we should have been a minimum of 500 feet away from the building in case a bomb DID go off.

Now why didn’t the firemen and police know about that?

Mel, the campus assistant dean at the time, informed me of a little story I had not been aware of. It involves him and Dave the facilities manager.

“The police asked Dave and I to help them search the building for the bomb and helpfully said that it could be in something unusual like a backpack. I laughed and said that there is absolutely nothing unusual about a backpack on a college campus. Dave whispered to me that unless the bomb had coiled wires coming out of it and said ACME on the side, they were unlikely to find it.”

Thanks for the addition, Mel.