Confused chaos at College of Charleston

A member of the Charleston Police Department Bomb Squad is suited up on St. Philip's Street, as he prepares to enter an search a building on Liberty Street Tuesday after a credible bomb threat was recieved. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

Thankfully, the bomb threat that forced the evacuation of several College of Charleston buildings and the closure of multiple city blocks on Tuesday morning turned out to be a false alarm.

So did the school’s earliest messages alerting students that police had found a bomb on the campus.

That was the dramatic — and incorrect — warning that first circulated by an official Cougar Alert text message and email. It took school officials nearly 30 minutes to respond that a bomb had not been found, but that police were investigating a “credible threat.”

To be certain, time is of the essence in an emergency situation, and it is important to inform students and faculty as quickly as possible of any potential threats. But accuracy is also of critical importance, as misinformation can potentially threaten public safety.

C of C officials initially blamed the Cougar Alert mistake on a mis-typed emergency code. If that’s the case, job one should be to look at the school’s emergency alert system to safeguard against a simple typo.

Periodic updates on the situation would have been particularly useful given the fact that the incident shut down several city blocks for hours as police searched multiple campus buildings. Police were further delayed by the fact that many evacuating students left their backpacks behind — each of which also had to be inspected.

The debacle stands in stark contrast to the emergency response to a tragic murder-suicide on the University of South Carolina campus last week. Accurate campus-wide alerts were quickly dispatched, and school officials and Columbia police kept students and the public updated continuously. Meanwhile, fallout from the incident was quickly contained.

Hours after the initial alert at the College of Charleston, businesses near campus remained closed and traffic was snarled across the peninsula by road closings. All without any official explanation other than the ongoing investigation.

Then the Charleston County School District announced late in the afternoon that Memminger Elementary students would need to be signed out of school in person by their designated emergency contacts. District officials were reasonably concerned about the school’s proximity to the College of Charleston.

Apparently, parking officers had more prosaic concerns as they wrote several tickets to cars trapped near campus by police roadblocks. (When so informed, city officials quickly responded that the tickets would be forgiven.)

The College of Charleston and city officials are right to err on the side of caution. Any inconvenience is more than justified in the name of safety.

But the lack of effective communication during this ordeal created real problems of its own.

College President Glenn McConnell stated as much in a letter to the campus community after police announced that the issue had been resolved. He called the communication problems “unacceptable” and assured that he would work with the school’s emergency management task force to address the flaws in its alert system. That correctly acknowledges that the buck stops with him.

The College of Charleston must use this incident as a case study and improve its emergency communication strategy. The alternative is chaos.