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Taking the Call with Confidence

IN MIDAFTERNOON, an operator on your company switchboard answers what is probably the hundredth sales call of the day. She offers the usual greeting and moves into the question about where she can route the call. The caller cuts her off at that point and begins with: “You have 45 minutes to clear the building…” By the time the call is over, security has 44 minutes left to ensure the safety of everyone in the building. To do this, security managers must rely on the skills and awareness of company employees.

To adequately prepare for such events, security must help employees maintain alertness by preparing checklists, training both security and nonsecurity personnel, and conducting exercises.


A good checklist, placed within reach of all telephone stations that could receive a threatening call, is an excellent starting point. The checklist, designed to elicit information, should include a list of basic questions such as the following: When will the device detonate? Where is it located? What does it look like? Why did you plant the bomb?

The checklist should also include options for describing the caller’s voice to indicate whether he or she has an accent or a speech impediment. Other descriptors include whether the voice was male or female, raspy, disguised, or angry.

There should also be a section in the checklist on background noises that might help identify the caller. The type of threat should also be described. For example, was the call a recording, incoherent, or profane?

Employees should be trained on the most effective way to report a threat, in real time, to security or the police. The call should be reported as quickly as possible, without alerting the caller. This could be as simple as the recipient of the call e-mailing designated coworkers who can then call the police, or it could include deploying security equipment such as triggering a duress alarm, for example.

The checklist should be easy to read and free of jargon so that it can be used by nonsecurity employees. The checklist should use checkboxes when possible, but some space should be left blank for unexpected responses and notes.

Basic Training

When conducting training, the idea is not only to give employees a chance to read through the checklist in detail but also to experience the process in a realistic setting. In an effort to provide this increased level of realism, I developed a PowerPoint-based package with recorded threats. I created scripted scenarios with threats that ranged from an almost humorous intoxicated call to a sophisticated and professional threat. I used sound editing software to create a set of ambiance tracks, which allowed for various background noises consistent with a bar crowd, a busy street, a train horn in the distance, and a jet flying overhead, for example. These are all possible background sounds that may be indicated on the checklist, or they could be absent from the checklist, requiring the employee to write them down.

This type of presentation package allowed me to conduct a simulation, complete with advanced warning that the simulated threatening call was coming. After the simulation, I could then assess how much detail the employees caught. The PowerPoint even contained the scripts from which the recordings were made so that the notes taken on the checklist could be compared to the actual call.

Some employees are naturally gifted at picking up the critical factors in a threatening call. However, all employees can learn to acquire an ear for some level of detail. The employees who don’t have this as a natural skill will require additional training in listening for fine details and making accurate and timely notes. It is essential that managers guide and coach these trainees gently, as a poor result might be a reflection of hearing challenges or other difficulties requiring specialized attention.

In deciding who to include in this type of training, keep in mind that while it is often operators or other customer service personnel who will be answering the phone, any employee may end up receiving such a call. Don’t limit the training exposure only to personnel who work in call centers or at receptionist desks.


Not all threat calls are connected to an actual threat. By the same token, some actual threats—an explosive device placed on the premises—will occur without a warning call. Therefore, in addition to training staff to handle threat calls, companies should train security personnel and others to look out for suspicious activity or packages, especially in areas easily accessible from the outside.

An effective way to teach these skills is through classroom training. Managers should provide some examples of the types of threats that have been documented. They should keep the examples realistic. If scenarios are not believable, the training could easily be deemed too unrealistic to be of value or importance. Trainees should also be taught how to respond if a device is discovered.

Once the classroom training is complete, employees must be tested. To test security personnel, I often use a program where sets of clearly labeled devices are placed throughout a property—duffel bags with short pieces of PVC pipe inside. The items should be placed in areas that will not be observed by patrons or other outsiders, in an effort to avoid alarming those not involved in the drill.

The team is then notified that a drill is taking place. In the drill scenario, a notorious terrorist has targeted the property. The team is advised that locating and retrieving these labeled objects will earn them points. From that time forward, usually for a one-month period, the officers bring the objects back as they discover them, the points are added to a spreadsheet, and the items are hidden again.

As the month continues, additional variables can be added to the drill. For example, a fictitious report of a possible biological threat can be made, coordinated with the concealment of new and differently labeled devices. These devices should be hidden more carefully. For example, in one drill, a fake bioweapon was concealed behind the intake vent of an air handler. Such additions should garner significantly higher points for the finder, compared to the original devices, because they represent an increased level of threat.

At the conclusion of the program, the officer with the highest score received an award for his or her efforts, along with public recognition and praise. In one case, I pitted different shift groups against each other in the competition as well. Such competition, especially when using the team approach, can motivate those involved, and it can create positive habits, such as attention to detail and thoroughness.

It is also interesting to note that nonsecurity persons often bring the devices in as well. Special recognition should be arranged for them as a means of generating additional awareness.

Nonsecurity personnel assigned to work in areas where a threat object would most likely be found should also be given a separate test. In this case, it is advisable to label the object, at least on the surface, so that it does not cause excessive alarm in those who might find it. A trusted colleague should then enter the property in a manner consistent with the average customer, employee, or patron and deposit the object before departing the area.

The test should measure how long the device stays there before it is reported to security. The employees should also be graded on how they deal with the device once it is found. They should be able to follow company policy—usually to keep away from the object and notify security.


Training for threatening phone calls and dealing with suspicious devices leads to increased awareness, but full-scale exercises are necessary to put all the pieces together. The scenario can vary, but the exercise should involve following through on a threatening call, conducting an organized search, and isolating the threat.

The exercise can be conducted on a small scale and involve just the security department and the personnel in the area where the device is located, or it can include the entire facility and local authorities. What you choose to do should be based on your perceived level of threat and the degree to which a full drill would disrupt operations. In general, the more extensive the drill can be, the better.

Involving the authorities might also give greater insight into the expectations and limitations they will bring to a real threat. In most jurisdictions, for example, managers will discover that the police and fire departments prefer to jointly respond to all such reported threats. Security should determine whether local police have a dedicated bomb squad available or search dogs; if not, security must find out which nearby jurisdiction is willing and able to respond to the company’s location.

Police will most likely leave it up to the company to determine whether a threatening call is credible. They will offer some advice, but the decision to evacuate is almost always left up to the organization.

Just as with so many aspects of security and life safety, it is the preparation that makes all the difference. By training and conducting drills, security managers can help their companies be prepared for threatening calls and explosive devices.

Michael Stroberger, CPP, is a managing director for Garda in the Dallas area. He is on the board of directors for the International Foundation for Protection Officers and is that organization’s current treasurer/secretary. He is a member of ASIS International.