An unsigned letter from state workers in Springfield
Vermont state workers in Springfield are concerned about safety procedures after two bomb threats were called in this month to an office building there.
The same Department of Corrections probation and parole staff member answered the phone both times, according to Vermont Buildings and General Services Commissioner Chris Cole.
Employees immediately called 911, Cole said, then followed the directions of a designated emergency coordination manager "whose role and responsibility is to be a liaison between the state employees in the incident … and the first-responders, whoever they may be."
Once Springfield police arrived, officers asked for volunteers from among the state workers to enter the building with police for a search, according to Cole.
“This is standard protocol for law enforcement agencies, because they don’t work in the building, they don’t know what’s out of place in the building,” Cole said.
In both cases, nothing suspicious was found and workers were allowed to reenter the building.
“These appear to both be hoaxes,” Cole said of the threats.
But according to an unsigned letter sent to state union leaders and obtained by Seven Days, workers in the Springfield state office building aren’t satisfied with the emergency protocols.
The letter said that the bomb threats on January 18 and 23 put state employees in a situation for which they hadn't been trained.
“Both times they used state employees to clear their respective departments,” the letter read. “However, state employees were not given training on how to detect explosive devices.”
Cole said the procedure doesn’t count on state employees "to be trained in bomb detection." Instead, they're asked "to identify anything that is out of place” and then notify police officers, who are appropriately trained.
In the letter, employees said they wanted to know why bomb-sniffing dogs or bomb detection technology wasn’t used to clear the building.
They also mentioned problems with the building itself.
“Also the intercom, etc emergency systems are not working in the building here,” the letter said.
In bold, at the end of the letter, it read: “We do not feel safe and something needs to be done.”
Vermont State Employees' Association executive director Steve Howard said he received a copy of the letter from a state employee who works in the Springfield office.
He said the safety concerns fit into a larger pattern of state employees feeling unsafe because state office buildings lack security. He said the state is asking too much of employees who were never hired for security.
“The biggest thing is they’re training people who are experts in other work” to run security operations in an emergency, Howard said. “[Department for Children and Families] social workers are experts in DCF social work. You can’t rely on volunteers to do what a trained law enforcement officer is trained to do, and so they’ve ignored that because they don’t want to spend the money.”
Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, said Tuesday afternoon that the administration has streamlined the contracting process for funds that the legislature has already designated for security measures.
“The investments are there, and we are working to get them on the ground more expeditiously," she said. "This is a priority."
Kelley also said that the building's staff had recently completed an emergency training, which helped workers know what to do after the threats came in.
She said Scott and administration officials "want to make sure all state employees are safe, but also feel safe, and certainly understand in a situation like this that it would be scary for those employees. That is a good opportunity to reflect on the procedures, and if there’s areas to improve, we can do so.”
Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette, whose department oversees the state’s probation and parole program, said he hadn’t heard about employee concerns until he was contacted by Seven Days Tuesday morning.
Touchette said he planned to immediately follow up with his staff to see if DOC workers in the Springfield building "indicated any concerns for their safety.”
The Springfield state office building houses workers from the Department of Corrections; Department for Children and Families; the Department of Motor Vehicles; the Department of Health; the Department of Public Safety, Fire Safety Division; the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living; and the Agency of Natural Resources.
Touchette said he plans to contact Howard to try to get more information about workers’ concerns.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Howard said the workers’ concerns didn’t surprise him. He said Scott’s administration, along with Peter Shumlin’s before, “don’t take the safety of state employees very seriously.”
Howard said a state office building in St. Albans had a similar situation during a bomb threat months ago.
“The communications equipment didn’t work,” he said of that incident. “The third and fourth floor didn’t know there was a bomb threat, the first and second floor were being evacuated.”
File: Paul Heintz
VSEA executive director Steve Howard
Howard said security problems at state buildings are common, and trained security staff should be stationed in every state office. He said the August 2015 murder of DCF social worker Lara Sobel in a Barre parking lot started a conversation about security in state offices, but didn’t lead to much action.
“There are whole buildings without any security staff at all, there are parking lots that aren’t secured,” Howard said. “When they have a bomb threat, it’s chaotic and there’s confusion everywhere.”
A similar communication breakdown happened Tuesday in Morrisville, according to Howard. State workers there noticed a police cruiser driving repeatedly past the building and asked their managers what was happening, he said. Only then, according to Howard, did managers send out an email explaining that police were on site because someone made a “veiled threat” against DCF during a court appearance, and the person was expected for an appointment at those state offices Tuesday afternoon.
Howard said workers should be told when there’s a threat against their workplace, adding that communication alone won’t solve the problem.
“We need significant investment in trained law enforcement in the state office buildings, particularly those that have DCF offices,” he said. “We are working to get our probation and parole officers the opportunity to be trained to carry defensive weapons. And that actually does make a lot of the state office buildings a little bit more secure because there would be people there who are trained to deal with those situations.”
Kelley said the governor's office was looking into the assertion that the Springfield building's intercom system wasn't working properly during the recent bomb threats. She said state money for security is designated for new security measures as well as maintenance of existing security infrastructure.