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Attention to suspected threats rises in Western Pa., should subside

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
Pittsburgh police and bomb squad assemble at the scene of a suspicious package in the parking lot of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association Tuesday April 23, 2013 in Oakland.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh police and bomb squad assemble at the scene of a suspicious package in the parking lot of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association Tuesday April 23, 2013 in Oakland.

The good news is, the panic probably won't last.

Calls to 911 for unattended items and bomb threats have increased since the Boston Marathon bombings, but police and law enforcement expect them to diminish in a few months.

“Because of the immediacy of what happened in Boston, people will be very conscious of what's going on around them,” said Bob Heibel, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the FBI who founded the Institute for Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University.

“That will be especially true in New York and the big cities,” Heibel said. “And that will subside.”

Officials in Western Pennsylvania cited a moderate increase in bomb scares, mostly in the city, as people heed government advice to “see something, say something.”

“It's always the case when these things occur,” said Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss, who recalled months of calls for suspicious white powder in the months after 9/11 and anthrax attacks.

City police called out some or all of its bomb squad nine times since the Boston bombings on April 15. That does not include an unknown number of cases in which investigators determined an item was not dangerous without calling the squad.

“That's abnormally high in an eight-day period. We usually get maybe three or four a month,” said the unit's leader, Sgt. Matthew Gauntner. “But I think it's already slowing down.”

In Bethel Park, police charged a Castle Shannon man with threatening to blow up South Hills Village mall on Sunday, and in Uniontown someone left a commercial-grade firework on a porch that day.

Most calls involve innocently discarded items, police said.

“I believe every fire department, police department and bomb squad in the area would rather go into the field to investigate a suspicious package ... that turns out to be a false alarm, rather than not being called out because someone thinks it is a bother and it turns out it is an explosive,” said Dan Stevens, deputy emergency management coordinator for the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety.

Stevens said the county responded to three such calls in the past week, above the average of one a week. Emergency management officials in Allegheny, Butler and Washington counties did not respond to questions about bomb calls.

Last year, when authorities announced charges against a Dublin man for bomb threats that disrupted the University of Pittsburgh campus for six weeks, school leaders put the cost of evacuating buildings about 100 times at more than $300,000.

“From our position, we take every one of them serious,” Pitt police Chief Tim Delaney said.

The city and Pitt campus are on high alert with commencement this weekend as is the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon the next weekend, Delaney and others noted. Officials will discuss marathon security plans publicly on Thursday.

The penalty for purposely making a threat can be severe. Common charges police file in such cases are making terroristic threats, threatening to use weapons of mass destruction and risking a catastrophe. When the threat causes an evacuation, the charge is a third-degree felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. Authorities can seek restitution for the police response.

Staff writer Paul Peirce contributed. David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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