Wednesday, March 21, was supposed to be a day when students from three York County high schools would learn how county government functions. Instead, they found themselves involved in a real-life emergency response situation.
County Government Day, an event hosted each year by members of the local American Legion, had just gotten underway when the scheduled itinerary abruptly changed.
“We had just finished meeting with all of the students in the district courtroom ... and were getting ready to give tours,” recalls York County Sheriff’s Lt. Paul Vrbka. “I was walking by the courtroom and a deputy told me a bomb threat had been called in to the district court office.”
The call came in around 9:00 a.m., Vrbka says. A male, thought to be between 20 and 30 years of age, told the employee who answered the call that they should get everyone out of the building. There was a bomb. Despite attempts to keep the caller on the line, he hung up.
“My concern was we had 75 high schools kids here, plus we had the staff and people who were coming it to do business,” says Vrbka.
Following courthouse policy, everyone in the building – between 175 and 200 people, Vrbka estimates – was instructed to proceed to a designated site. Vrbka says the evacuation process took roughly five minutes.
The fact it was County Government Day may have helped expedite the evacuation process.
“I’d say there were six or eight veterans here that day. That was an asset. They took control. Their military training kicked in and they helped move people out in an orderly manner,” Vrbka says.
The fact the courthouse received a similar bomb threat more than a year ago also helped because people remembered what to do.
Following protocol, the sheriff’s office contacted the York Fire Department, Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol, which brought in a canine trained to detect explosives.
“We did a search of all the rooms and hallways looking for anything suspicious,” says Vrbka, who adds that the multiple agencies worked well together.
Members of the county’s Board of Commissioners were contacted and a decision was made to close the courthouse until 1:00 p.m. should no explosive device be found, which turned out to be the case. County Government Day was cancelled and students from York, McCool Junction and Heartland High Schools returned home.
Vrbka says while the experience that day was inconvenient, it also served as a good reminder to be aware of protocol and your surroundings.
“You can’t take anything lightly with what’s going on in the world today,” he says. “I would consider it to be a good experience to learn from, and we did.
“The State Patrol suggested on situations like a bomb threat you have your staff trained to observe the area. As you’re leaving, do a quick scan of your work area and if you see anything suspicious, report it to law enforcement.
“I think it would be a good idea to give that instruction to all employees and make it a protocol,” he offers as advice to others.
The bomb threat also prompted officials to also update contact information for all department heads.
“We had a meeting in the sheriff’s office afterward to make sure we have their current (cell phone) numbers so we can send them a text once it’s determined to be safe. That’s something I think we will do yearly,” Vrbka says of keeping contact information current.
Like the bomb threat call the county received more than a year ago, Vrbka says a search warrant later revealed this call was placed through an out-of-state phone service and was likely from a “spoof” number, which makes it nearly impossible to trace.
As he reflects on that day, Vrbka sees somewhat of a silver lining.
“I think this was maybe better than a drill, because there was a sense of the unknown. Everybody cooperated and did what they were supposed to do.”