University of Tennessee at Chattanooga bomb threat cost: Time and money

photo A Chattanooga police officer uses a dog as he searches outside Holt Hall last week. Several UTC buildings were evacuated in response to a bomb threat.
photo UTC students take final exams on the sidewalk last week after several campus buildings were evacuated in response to a bomb threat.

UTC BOMB THREATSRecorded in calendar years.2008 -- 12009 -- 12010 -- 22011 -- 12012 -- 5Source: UTC Police

A string of bomb threats against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has emptied first responder resources, taxpayers' pockets and buildings during final exams.

After three threats in two weeks and four total this semester, university officials and law enforcement agencies say they have ratcheted up a criminal investigation and are taking extra security measures to try to quash what the university's police chief has called a "plague."

"We've had bomb threats through the years, but this has been bad," said Chief Robert Ratchford. "I don't think the person or people doing this realizes just how serious the consequences can be."

On Friday, investigators released a photo of a "person of interest" in the case but said nothing about how he might be connected or whether they are searching for multiple suspects.

The university put several buildings under 24-hour surveillance to stem new disruptions to make-up exams students took on Saturday morning -- a day they should have been heading home for Christmas break.

"It's incredibly frustrating to see the actions of one or a few impact hundreds of people like it has," said UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell.

Local police and fire investigators have teamed up with federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security, Ratchford said.

If caught, the perpetrator wouldn't just face university discipline, but state and possibly federal charges for making false reports and terrorist threats.

Making a false report is a felony carrying a possible sentence of three to 15 years. A federal sentence for terrorist threats could be even more severe.

It takes an average of two to three hours to evacuate, sweep and reopen the buildings and involves the UTC and Chattanooga police departments, the city's bomb squad and the Chattanooga Fire Department.

Between university and law enforcement expenses, the tab for a single bomb threat can reach $100,000, Cantrell said.

The toll can be psychological, as well, affecting academic performance and making students numb to security threats, professors have worried.

Some professors say they plan to address the administration's handling of the threats at a faculty meetings.

"The scary thing is, students have stopped caring. Bomb threats have become routine, and no one feels alarmed anymore. What are you doing about this UTC?" Stephanie Wilson, a psychology master's student and instructor, wrote on the school's Facebook page. "This doesn't happen at other colleges. Are you sure students are behind this even?"

Even the moderator of the playful Facebook group page "UTC Bomb Threats" -- where students joke about the frequency of the evacuations -- was exasperated Thursday.

"The bomb threats used to be a fun nuisance that only really happened around midterms, that's why I created this page," the moderator wrote. "Now it's just stupid."

Cantrell says he understands the frustration.

"I experience that as well. I understand it and appreciate them voicing it. But I want the community to be assured we are doing everything we can to stop it and to catch whoever is responsible for this."

After the fourth bomb threat, Cantrell said university officials set up "secured, alternative locations" where professors can give exams.

But the emergency responders have no choice but to react each time a threat appears credible.

"It may be fine 10 out of 10 times," said Ratchford. "But what about that 11th time?"

Ratchford said bomb threats -- phoned in on pay phones and scrawled on papers pasted to the wall -- have been a part of his job since he started as a UTC officer 30 years ago.

But cellphones, the Internet and social media have changed the game, making it easier to place a threat and trickier to track one down.

Several large universities were crippled by bomb threats in the last year.

The University of Pittsburgh was besieged for four months this spring by a relentless series of threats.

Tens of thousands of students had to be evacuated from four major universities from Louisiana to North Dakota over four days in September

Because schools aren't required to report bomb threats in their annual crime data, it's difficult to compare UTC's number of bomb threats to other schools of its size.

The spike at UTC is not an anomaly, but it is still alarming, said Steven J. Healy, managing partner of the campus security consulting firm Margolis Healy & Associates in Vermont.

"Four in a semester in a short period of time -- that is at a concerning level," he said.

The strongest way to end a cycle of threats, Healy says, is with arrests and convictions.

No one has been arrested in the recent threats, but Ratchford said the university police have caught and prosecuted perpetrators in years past.

Most UTC students assume the threat-maker is another student, trying to get out of exams. But Healy says there is no pattern to those who call in threats.

"It could be something as unsettling as someone trying to get out of a final to someone who has something against the institution."

He said clamping down on bomb threats also means having tight, up-to-date procedures for dealing with the threats responsibly while "minimizing the circuslike atmosphere that can ensue."

For the most part, Cantrell said, the university tries to reduce the drama of a bomb threat, but it's a "difficult balance."

"On one hand, you want to make it as low-key, as non-invasive as possible. And yet on the other side because of cellphones, Facebook and Twitter, if you do something low-key, everyone still wants to know what's going on, and they deserve that information. It just puts us in a tough place."