Rash of bomb threats a learning opportunity for response capacity, Goodale

TORONTO — Law enforcement officials in Canada and beyond will be working to learn lessons about how to best respond to bomb threats after a rash of such incidents this week, the federal public safety minister said Friday.

Ralph Goodale said policing and security experts around the world will be scrutinizing the fallout from the wave of threats, which triggered varying responses from forces in Canada and the United States on Thursday.

The idle threats, delivered via email, touched off everything from quiet divisional-level investigations to full-scale evacuations of public buildings and deployments of specialized explosives investigators.

Police forces said probes into bomb threats are particularly time-consuming and resource-intensive, and Goodale said experts around the world would be looking for ways to limit the toll on those on the front lines.

“The level of international collaboration here is very high — police, security, intelligence across three continents making sure that we examine an incident like this and learn every conceivable lesson from that experience, including response capacity,” Goodale said at an appearance in Toronto. “We will go to school on all of that.”

Thursday’s wave of bomb threats, which American investigators declared a hoax, swept across communities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

Police departments in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa and Winnipeg, as well as Ontario’s provincial force and RCMP detachments in B.C. and Manitoba, investigated multiple threats that all proved groundless.

One busy subway station in downtown Toronto was briefly evacuated as part of the investigation from city police, who said they received at least 10 false calls throughout the day.

In the U.S., hundreds of schools, businesses and government buildings received emails that triggered searches, evacuations and fear. Investigators, however, dismissed the threats as a crude extortion attempt intended to cause disruption and compel recipients into sending money.

Some of the emails had the subject line “Think Twice.” They were sent from a spoofed email address. The sender claimed to have had an associate plant a small bomb in the recipient’s building and that the only way to stop him from setting it off was by making an online payment of $20,000 in Bitcoin currency.

Goodale said experts in three continents have already begun analyzing Thursday’s threats for potential lessons.

For several Canadian police forces, the day’s events highlighted the difficulty of balancing public safety with limited internal resources.

Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne of the Ontario Provincial Police said officers were called to at least 15 cites that fall under its jurisdiction, adding all calls followed the same pattern as the threats detailed by U.S. authorities.

She said protocols dictate that a member of a local explosives disposal unit attends any bomb threat from the outset, adding police from local detachments are on hand as well.

Dionne concedes that such an approach is resource-intensive and makes it challenging to react to genuine police calls, likening the response to one reserved for swatting calls where false emergencies are phoned into local officials.

In both cases, however, Dionne said the public safety risk merits the strong response.

“We can’t gamble with public safety, so we really need to investigate to the fullest,’she said. “That means using all of our resources available to us.”

The RCMP echoed the need to take all threats seriously while focusing on equipping the public to cope with the situation.

“In the case of threats, scams or frauds, the RCMP uses awareness and education to warn members of the public and to provide them with instructions on how to handle the situation,” the force said.

Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Service Board, said the issue of threat response is a sensitive one that can be difficult to navigate. Regardless of which approach a force may opt for, he said every agency grapples with the same core struggle.

“These are difficult situations requiring police agencies to assess and decide on appropriate public communication balancing the need to inform against the need to avoid causing undue alarm,” he said.

The balancing act is on display in both Toronto and Montreal, where forces tend to deploy officers to evaluate the threat before enlisting help from more specialized explosives experts.

But Toronto Const. Caroline De Kloet said the response is often shaped by the amount of information received at the beginning of a call, adding it’s necessary to be flexible and react to whatever details are available.

Sometimes time-consuming precautions, such as building or neighbourhood evacuations, wind up being part of the process until the most credible information can be obtained, she said.

Regardless of how widespread the response may be, she said bomb threats are inevitably draining.

“It’s wasteful for resources, absolutely,” she said. “We don’t have numerous teams and they can’t be everywhere at the same time.”

— with files from Shawn Jeffords and the Associated Press.

Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press

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