2014 MSU Spartan Stadium Bomb Threat

Notre Dame v Michigan StateJuly 2, 2014 was a challenging day for Michigan State University.  Two individuals were charged with phoning in a bomb threat to the MSU police central dispatch.  The threat was allegedly directed at Spartan Stadium.  The venue and surrounding area were evacuated.

Two Lansing, Michigan residents, Cynthia Marie Spade and Anthony Robert Shearer, were quickly taken into custody and arraigned on July 3.

The timing of this incident was curious as it happened over the summer while the campus was relatively empty.

Let’s take a closer look at how everything unfolded.

Police said the threat was phoned in around 3:15pm.  Police swept through the stadium and adjacent buildings telling employees to exit.  A fire alarm was also activated to help expedite the evacuation process.  No explosives were found.

Here’s the statement posted on the official MSU twitter feed:

July 2, 2014
12:47pm (3:47pm Eastern standard time)

MSU Police are investigating a bomb threat at Spartan Stadium. The stadium & surrounding areas have been evacuated. Please avoid the area.

This statement was immediately retweeted 277 times.

Some responded with jokes and quips…

  • Don’t worry; the timer was sure to malfunction
  • scUM fans trying to get that home game back against Sparty
  • But how can I watch the explosion, then?

Less than two hours later, the following “stand-down” order was posted on the official MSU twitter feed:

July 2, 2014
2:38pm (5:38pm Eastern standard time)

MSU Police give all clear after bomb threat at Spartan Stadium. More info: http://www.msu.edu/emergency

One person replied…

  • great job today following protocol and keeping everyone safe.. Thank u

Identical content was posted on the official MSU facebook page:

Wednesday July 2, 2014
12:48pm (3:48pm Eastern standard time)

MSU Police are investigating a bomb threat at Spartan Stadium. The stadium & surrounding areas have been evacuated. Please avoid the area.

However, there was a great deal of confusion expressed in several replies…

  • I expect the President of the University to issue a statement answering the legitimate question of why the entire campus was not notified via cell phones, etc. This begs the question, is there a campus wide notification system in place? If not, why not?
  • I found this out thru our news! It would be nice to be alerted especially to those of us that were near campus! What’s the use of alerts if we never get notified
  • I get a text when someone gets their stuff stolen at night, but not for a bomb threat during the day when I’m actually in class?! Ridiculous.
  • Why am I finding this out through Facebook and not MSU alert
  • If it’s true that student alerts aren’t active in the summer, that’s crazy! There are more students at MSU during the summer than there are at a lot of colleges during the standard academic year!

Now here’s the post from the MSU police department facebook page.  Note the time discrepancy and a greater degree of specificity:

Michigan State University Police Department
21 hrs · Edited · Wednesday, July 2
1:01pm (4:01pm Eastern Time)

  • CAMPUS ALERT: A bomb threat was called in to police central dispatch to report a bomb at the MSU Spartan Stadium. All stadium personnel, Central Service, Running Track, and Tower have all been evacuated to the shelter of Wells Hall and the South Side of Munn Arena. We are asking everyone to stay out of the area until further notice.

Michigan State University Police Department
4 hrs Thursday, July 3
5:45am (8:45am Eastern time)

  • Reference MSU Alert: The early development of suspects led investigators to believe the threat was not credible and therefore did not necessitate an emergency alert. Normal evacuation protocols were followed as a precautionary measure while investigators completed interviews of two suspects that were in custody.

That follow-up “reference alert” was posted roughly 17 hours later.

Here’s an excerpt from the MSU Police facebook page:

Protection, Planning, Response, Recovery, Mitigation

Protection, planning, response, recovery, mitigation are the five phases of managing any emergency or disaster. This is the responsibility of the MSU Police Homeland Security and Planning Division. We accomplish our goals by working across department lines to coordinate the efforts of all those involved in the four phases. This includes working with and preparing all first responders, all recovery efforts, all units of the University and all units of Local, State and Federal government.

This would normally sound like a fine mission statement.  However, in the event of an artificially generated stampede, it’s rendered entirely worthless.  A human stampede is an event that unfolds in real-time where O.O.D.A. (observe, orient, decide, act) loops are nonexistent.  Simply stated, there is no time to assess the situation.  Therefore, it’s imperative to rely on AWARENESS, not mitigation.  You do not mitigate an artificially generated stampede.  You take the necessary steps to prevent it.  In this case, that means telling people that legitimate emergency evacuation orders (specifically for large, confined crowds) do NOT come from personal cell phones.

Now you could make the following argument: what if a presidential terror alert (through the Wireless Emergency Alert system) is the source of a mass cellular evacuation order?  Well, if any individual (president, chancellor, governor, etc.) or government body (DHS, FCC, FEMA, etc.) exercised such a degree of extreme indiscretion and poor decision making, then they would bear the ultimate responsibility for pursuing that course of action.  Until the law specifically states that the federal government can violate the chain of command, usurp the incident commander’s authority and disregard the freedom of assembly provision afforded by the First Amendment, the power to evacuate a stadium should be held exclusively under the jurisdiction of the incident commander and those individuals he/she relies upon to make that final decision.

Steven Beard is a Michigan State Police Officer and functions as a liaison with the Department of Homeland Security.

beardCoincidentally, I had a conversation with Officer Beard about stadium emergency evacuation protocol on June 16, 2014 (just 18 days before this incident transpired).  During our 26 minute conversation he refused to definitively “rule out” the possibility of exclusively ordering an evacuation of the football stadium via cellular platforms (specifically the campus text emergency alert system).  There are other incident commanders who hold this same position.  It was my contention that under NO circumstance whatsoever would you deliver the INITIAL evacuation order via cellular transmissions.  I believe such an action could result in tremendous confusion, possibly sparking a panic.  It would markedly increasing the prospect of a human stampede for the following reasons:

  • Not everyone owns a cell phone.  Of those that do, some might not have them physically on their person when the information is disseminated.  Some might not check their messages or even have them powered on.
  • Many stadium attendees would not be signed up for the campus text emergency alert system or connected to the official MSU twitter feed, MSU campus police facebook page, etc.  These forums are generally opt-in notification platforms.
  • The precise wording of an evacuation would require tremendous care so as not to spook the crowd.  Such a carefully worded statement might not even exist.  If it does, I’d like to see it.  There’s a huge difference between a statement lit up on the jumbotron, available for everyone to see, and a cryptic, simultaneous bulk cellular message available only for select scrutiny and random interpretation.

The most important consideration when issuing an emergency evacuation order is a clear, unified directive.  This is achieved through the public address system, perhaps in conjunction with the jumbotron.  To insinuate that “using cellular platforms is an option” is a serious error in judgement.  It completely defies the context and spirit of an effective evacuation.  You do NOT toy with the emotional status of stadium crowds in the 50,000 – 100,000 range.  You do NOT play messaging games with large, confined crowds.

This is not an appropriate time to experiment with newer strategies, especially since very few stadium attendees have any relevant knowledge about evacuation protocol.  Such matters are held very “close to the vest” as evacuation protocol is a sensitive issue.  Why is this?  Well… because of the potential for a panic resulting in a human stampede.  The possibility of a mass, cellular stadium evacuation order needs to be taken “off the table.”  The notion that anyone handling emergency preparedness would not agree with this assessment is extremely troublesome.  I understand the desire to keep your options open.  I also understand that evacuation protocol and the science governing large crowds is a continually evolving dynamic.  But there are certain things you would just simply never do.  Why?  Because it defies common sense, established precedent and could ultimately be construed as an act of criminal negligence.

When delivering an emergency evacuation for a crowded stadium, a straightforward, focused directive is essential.  You use the public address system.  You notify the entire stadium that the game has been temporarily suspended and ask for their cooperation.  Then, you disseminate a message clearing the field of all players and personnel.  You repeat that message until the playing surface is satisfactorily empty.  Then you disseminate a message to clear the stands.  You repeat that message until the stands are satisfactorily evacuated.  You do not deviate from this approach.

Now if you want to provide FOLLOW-UP information AFTER the initial evacuation order, I have no problem with that.  For example, cellular notifications could be an excellent option for keeping people in the loop (explaining the rationale behind the evacuation, offering good options for shelter, announcing when the game will resume, etc.).  But as far as the INITIAL evacuation order goes… you do NOT use cellular platforms.

This also begs the question of the precise wording of such a message.  If you’re willing to avail yourself of this evacuation strategy, it would require some very specific terminology as to why the order is taking place.  Current protocol generally does not condone offering a reason, whether it be for inclement weather (such as lightning strikes) or a bomb threat emergency.  The general industry consensus is to avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy explanation.  It’s not an appropriate time to engage in untested semantics.

If you were to initiate a stadium emergency evacuation order via cellular transmissions, it’s human nature that people would question “why” they are being told to evacuate.  Many would have no clue what’s going on.  Naturally, they would start asking questions rather than strictly comply.  This could irreparably disrupt command and control.  Once again, a clear, unified order is critical.  And that is why you use the public address system.

Please keep in mind that there’s a substantial difference between a bomb threat “condition” and a bomb threat “emergency.”  It should come as no surprise that just because someone phones in a bomb threat, leaves a menacing note or scrawls the word “bomb” on a restroom mirror DURING a major event… that, in itself, does not necessarily justify a complete, full scale evacuation.  This falls under the heading of “generally known, but undocumented” policy.  The reason is obvious.  PRECEDENT.  An evacuation for a bomb threat condition would be an atrocious precedent and likely encourage copycats.  Situations like these (bomb threat conditions) occur far more often than is known to the general public.  Bomb threat emergency classification requires a much higher threshold of evidence.

During the Spartan Stadium incident, a conscious decision was made to not engage the campus text emergency alert system.  Although the Clery Act (notification of criminal acts and emergency situations on campus) dictates timely awareness, I tend to agree with the decision that was made.  Since emergency responders realized the strong likelihood of a hoax, a decision to utilize the campus text emergency alert system would have likely been counterproductive.

The Clery Act, although well-intentioned, became law in 1990.  It never took into account the possibility of everyone in the stadium having a cell phone — having access to deliberately nonfactual, real-time information, hoax bomb threats and intentionally false evacuation orders.  If confronted with a real-world emergency stadium evacuation, the initial utilization of the campus text emergency alert system and social media platforms is unacceptable (unless of course, the stadium is empty, as was the case with the MSU Spartan Stadium incident).

Regrettably, the federal government has yet to evaluate this issue.  It’s my contention they will remain reactive and complacent until a tragedy unfolds.  What’s ultimately necessary here is taking a proactive stance and the issuance of formal guidelines.

Here’s the final takeaway from this incident.  When specifically dealing with a stadium evacuation, “public facebook responses” and “twitter feedback” can have serious ramifications.  Affording everyone else the opportunity to “chime in” is a breach of established protocol.  There would appear to be a “cheapening” or “degradation” of authority.  Social media combined with the speed of transmission and the potential for false information and/or deceptive humor or deliberately incendiary comments could produce dire consequences.  This is another major reason you would strictly employ the public address system, possibly in tandem with the jumbotron.  These mediums do a superior job of maintaining a calm, orderly evacuation process because they offer a unilateral transmission of information.  The last thing you’d want are random, unqualified individuals offering their opinions or rhetoric.  Misinterpretation and confusion are unacceptable characteristics when dealing with an emergency stadium evacuation.

All in all, I credit the MSU police department for coping with a difficult situation.  Considering the circumstances, this incident likely fell under the general heading of “better safe than sorry.”  This is consistent with the current narrative for how to deal with a bomb threat condition.

This is admittedly difficult to sift through.  I sympathize with the plight of incident commanders because the vagaries of the Clery Act do not address the unique conditions presented by a stadium evacuation.  And that’s ultimately the reason to just start simply telling people… that in the unlikely event of a stadium emergency evacuation, a legitimate order would NEVER originate from your personal cell phone.  If you were to receive this kind of information, it’s almost certainly a hoax designed to create an artificially generated stampede.  Human beings have a fundamental right to possess this degree of situational awareness.  They deserve access to this generic knowledge in order to adequately defend themselves.  This is a time-sensitive, public safety issue.

I had a previous conflict with Michigan State University regarding this matter.  In 2013, I was sent an email on behalf of MSU President and NCAA Executive Chair Lou Anna Simon.  I believe its content was disingenuous and deliberately deceptive.

Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium current capacity is listed at 75,005.