A caller made a bomb threat directed at the College of Charleston campus today at 10:39 a.m. CofC students did not begin to receive alerts about the threat until about 11:08 a.m., when some students say police had already begun arriving on campus with AR-15 rifles and bomb gear.

In addition to taking nearly half an hour to disseminate the news of the threat to students, the Cougar Alert system — which sends out text messages and automated phone calls to students who opt in for emergency alerts — got a major fact wrong: It claimed that a bomb had been found on campus.

At 11:45 a.m., CofC President Glenn McConnell sent an email to students with an “update and correction” noting that no bomb had yet been found on campus. Later in the day, at 4:50 p.m., after police had cleared the scene and determined that no bombs were in campus buildings, McConnell issued a press statement stating that Cougar Alert “proved less than effective in a real-time situation.”

McConnell wrote:

In the aftermath of today’s events, we have learned that there was a glitch in the system, programmed years ago — which resulted in our communication protocols being compromised, and the initial “bomb found” message was sent out electronically in error. Also, the mechanisms for communicating quickly through the Cougar Alert system — by phone, text, and email — did not reach all constituents. Plain and simple, that is unacceptable, and I will work with our emergency management taskforce to address it immediately.

Our first and foremost priority at this institution is for our students’ and College community’s safety. While we may hope something like today is never repeated, we must be better prepared in dealing with it. And I assure you that we will.

According to CofC spokesman Mike Robertson, the college adopted the Cougar Alert system following the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The mass notification system is provided by Blackboard Connect, which also provides services to schools including the University of Alabama, Northwestern University, and the University of Notre Dame.

Robertson said earlier in the day that after the initial threat was phoned in to Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch at 10:39 a.m., it was a matter of “minutes or seconds” before the threat was relayed to CofC’s Department of Public Safety. He said the false alarm about a bomb being found on campus was due to user error on the part of a dispatcher at Public Safety.

“She made a mistake and put that there was a bomb when it should have been a bomb threat,” Robertson said. “But the thing to keep in mind was we wanted to alert CofC to evacuate the area, and it was proven that it worked.”

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