Note: This article describes possible warning signs indicating someone maybe involved in dangerous activities. These activities range from manufacturing drugs to making improvised explosives. Each college and university has internal and external regulations governing when they can enter a residence hall space. This article supposes you or your staff are in a dorm room and have accidentally discovered something that appears suspicious.
The presence of these indicators may not be proof of anything but if encountered should be examined carefully. This may require a hazardous materials or explosive expert. If there is a logical explanation they can help provide the expertise to make that determination. If you encounter these conditions immediately contact your local public safety/police department.
You receive a call from a supervisor in your campus facilities department. There has been a possible plumbing break in a residence hall. The facilities team notices water coming out from under the door of a recently vacated dorm room. The supervisor says they located the water leak but discovered some unusual items left by the previous occupant.
When you arrive you notice several packages of Christmas lights, empty boxes of roofing nails, a spool of electrical wire, empty packages of fireworks, a dissembled clock radio, and a box containing a new radio controlled toy car. Sitting next to these items is new nylon backpack and a box for a household appliance. What were these items collected for? Are they dangerous?
These are identical to the items used to build the two bombs in the Boston Marathon bombing. The bombing was conducted by two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Dzhokhar was a student at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. After the bombing he phoned his roommates who went to his dorm room. At Dzhokhar’s request they removed a backpack containing incriminating items and a computer which they threw in a campus dumpster. These were later recovered from a local landfill and contained evidence of bomb making activities.
The investigators concluded some of the bomb making activity may have occurred In the dorm room. No one expects their students are engaged in serious criminal activity including building improvised explosives. In the course of your duties you may come into contact with unusual or suspicious items. Here are some danger signs that may indicate a serious threat.
Eight Danger Signs
There are eight warning signs that may indicate a serious safety threat.
- Items without a Logical Nexus What belongs and what does not belong? The first warning sign are items that do not seem to belong to this type of living space. The presence of chemicals, black or smokeless gunpowder, commercial items such as acetone or brake fluid, fertilizer or garden products are a warning sign. Metal pieces such as galvanized pipe, empty paint cans, or household items such as pressure cookers should get your attention. Pans being used to dry some type of substance or discarded packaging materials for fireworks should raise your suspicion. There are few legitimate uses for these products when you are living in a dormitory or residence hall. Rooms in dormitories and residence halls are the living quarters for many college students across the US. Their conditions range from tidy to unsanitary and everything in between. What all of them have in common are basic items related to domicile living such as school materials, clothing, bedding, sometimes foodstuffs, and all of the junk a college student can collect.
- Common Items in Unusual Volume Look for common items that are in unusual volume. Something that is not illegal or even unusual but appears in large volumes is a warning sign. Dozens of bottles of hydrogen peroxide, thousands of stick matches, several gallons of commercial chemicals have no logical place in a residence hall room. Improvised illegal processes often call for large quantities of common and legally purchased items. Another indicator are empty packages or containers which used to contain the items.
- Unusual Combinations of Items The unusual combination of items can be an indicator of a problem. Unknown chemicals, laboratory glassware, dissembled electronic items, and wire should get your attention. Why are there empty chemical containers and electronic parts laying around? Why would any student have sections of galvanized pipe in his room?
- Chemicals/Equipment That Appear to be University Property Any chemicals or equipment appearing to belong to your institution and not to the student is a warning sign they may be stealing these items. There has been a great public awareness effort by law enforcement to alert legal suppliers of the possible criminal use of certain items. These vendors are trained to report the unusual purchase of certain items that are otherwise legal. To avoid detection a student may be stealing them from your institutions laboratories or stores.
- Unidentified Chemicals Do not touch or sniff these chemicals. If you accidentally discover the presence of chemicals do not go any further but contact public safety. Do not make any environmental changes to the substance. If you discover a substance being heated, cooled, dissolved, or in any way manipulated you should not alter this. They should only be handled by an expert. Unidentified chemicals can come in several forms both powder and liquids. The first is a chemical in its original container that is marked but you do not recognize its scientific name. This requires a trained professional to examine the materials and evaluate their safety. The second are chemicals that are unknown. Many illegal processes involve manufacturing or manipulating chemicals into new properties. These are usually unmarked and will require chemical analysis to determine what they actually are.
- Items Which are Being Disassembled Any item containing electronic parts, such as circuit boards, which are being disassembled may indicate the person is attempting to extract a component or part to repurpose it. This can include items like toys with electronic parts, disposable cameras, heater thermostats, and old or disposable cell phones.
- Unusual Damage to the Dorm Room Damage by college residents is more of the norm than the exception. The damage that you should watch for are scorch marks, unusual stains, and anything that appears to be a chemical stain or burn. These areas may give off a scent. Illegal production of chemicals can often results in spills given the lack of safety systems found in legitimate laboratory spaces. The presence of stains or burns may be an indicator something is going on. If you see what appear to be blood stains this should also trigger your suspicion.
- Documents Related to Bomb Making or Manufacturing Drugs The freedom of the internet provides access to innumerable websites telliing you how to build everything from meth amphetamines to an atom bomb. Many of the people who are engaged in the production of illegal substances will look to online sources for practical information about the process they wish to conduct. A major warning sign is if you see any of these printed materials laying around.
Should I Search the Room?
You should use the tactics taught to first responders. If you walk in and see what appears to be suspicious conditions just back out. Under no circumstances should you start searching or sifting through the room. Do not touch or sniff anything that looks like a chemical. You should take some pictures with your smart phone to preserve exactly how it looked when you walked in the room. Wait for the public safety officers to arrive.
Should We Evacuate?
If you see these conditions or indicators you should stop and call for assistance. The conditions appear suspicious but there may still be a logical explanation. If the situation seems to be stable (the items appear to be inert) then you can wait for public safety to decide what to do. The only exception is if you see what appears to be a chemical process that appears active, anything involving a heat source, burning, giving off smoke or fumes, or leaking. The fire department should be called.
Talking to the Public Safety Officers
The first persons to arrive will probably be public safety patrol officers. They will have varying levels of training and experience with this type of incident. These officers are trained to logically develop their suspicions based on the totality of the situation. You can help this process by organizing your observations and clearly articulating them. Here are some typical questions asked by police officers.
Why were you called here?
Do not just say, “There was something wrong.” Clearly explain how you first became aware of this situation. Ex: Students complained to the resident advisor they smelled a strange chemical odor coming from this room. The student who was living here is on academic probation and told to move out.
Why do you think there is a problem?
It may seem obvious to you but go through the steps of what you did and what you found. Ex: It looks like someone has been conducting chemistry experiments in here. There are large stains and spill marks on the carpets. Whatever they were doing left this strange smell that people noticed in the hallway. There are lots of unusual items that do not make any sense like electronic parts and a box of empty peroxide bottles. This laboratory glasswork appears to be university property.
What Do You Know About The Person Living Here?
People are often dissatisfied with the actions taken by police officers. A common complaint is “I called the police and they did not do anything.” People expect that police officers have Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation. When the complaints about inaction come to public safety the officers will be asked what they were told at the scene. The officers will check their notes for the information they received at the time.
No one bothered to tell them the ex-roommate was convicted last year of stalking or the person in question has been threatening other students. None of the persons at the scene told the officers critical facts having direct impact on this incident. The police do not need long explanations but the additional facts you know may have great influence on what happens.
What Do You Want Us To Do?
If the officers ask, “What do you want us to do?” request their supervisor. When the supervisor arrives explain your concerns. If there are chemicals involved insist at a minimum the hazardous materials team on campus take a look. At some point the room will have to be cleaned and you want to make sure it is safe for your facilities employees to clear the contents.
They should also consider having a representative from the local public safety explosives ordinance team (bomb squad) take a look. Much of what your local bomb squad does is serve as advisors. Unlike the red lights and siren bomb squad incidents portrayed by Hollywood most involve one or two explosives experts quietly coming out and doing a preliminary investigation. They look at the evidence and offer advice to the police officers at the scene. If they determine it is a safety hazard they will tell you.
What is the Greatest Threat?
Anytime you are responsible for the care and safety of others and you encounter something suspicious the greatest threat is rationalization. Rationalization is the short cut that people often employ to get past difficult situations or suspicious circumstances.
A famous law enforcement example is the Manson Family murders in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The LAPD had alerted police officers across California to be on the alert for a specific type of handgun used in the killings. Several months later a young boy found a handgun discarded in some ivy. The LAPD was called and patrol officers took custody of the weapon. The gun was booked into evidence.
The gun passed through several custodial examinations and procedures. Many months later LAPD detectives put out another bulletin regarding the handgun. Suddenly someone remembered this type of gun being found. The police had the key piece of evidence in their custody for nearly a year.
Here are the types of thoughts that indicate you or others are rationalizing:
Students leave strange stuff in their rooms all of the time.
If we stop for every strange thing we find we would never get anything done.
It is just some powder.
We don’t have time to wait around for some expert to tell us this is nothing.
Everyone is overreacting.
When you rationalize you cut corners which can lead to trouble.
Auxiliary services and facilities administrators are responsible for many unique types of processes, services, and sometimes solving problems. You cannot be an expert in every type of problem. You must rely on experts and experienced staff to deal with these situations. If your staff uncovers a suspicious situation involving a dorm room look for the eight warning signs. Do not rush in and do not search the room. Call for assistance. Document what you find and clearly articulate your information and suspicions to public safety. Finally avoid rationalizations that can lead to dangerous shortcuts.
Additional information on what to look for in improvised drug and explosives situations is available from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security at FBI.gov and DHS.gov. The after action report on the Boston Marathon bombing is available from the State of Massachusetts at Mass.gov.