At first, the bomb looked like a rusty old immersion tank from a central heating system, recalls Dan Nicoll, head of security at the University of Exeter.
On 28 February last year, just after 9.30am – and not long into his shift – Dan took a call from the local neighbourhood police sergeant.
She was on her way to investigate reports of a possible World War Two bomb, and as a precaution she wanted the university security department to know about it.
Dan immediately agreed to meet her at the scene.
The suspect device had been found by a construction worker in an area that was being cleared for development adjacent to the campus. Although it was on private ground, its proximity meant there could be some risk to the university.
“We got down to where the excavator had been digging, and immediately saw what looked like an old tank from somebody’s loft, half buried in the ground,” Dan recalls. “As we looked closer, we could see the funnelling towards the rear of the device, and the coning at the top.”
Realising that the thing was a bomb – and a big one – Dan contacted Peter Scargill, director of commercial and residential campus services, who by then had been informed about the situation.
They agreed to set up an initial 100-metre exclusion zone, while a specialist police explosives team was called to investigate further. The events that then followed – the calling in of Ministry of Defence bomb disposal experts, the evacuation of much of the campus and surrounding residential areas, the controlled detonation, and the clear up operation and return afterwards – are a model of strong teamwork and cooperation between multiple agencies.
Of the 60 or so unexploded World War Two bombs found in the UK each year only the biggest make national news – most of these high explosive devices are in the 50-250kg range, but they can top 1000kg. This proved to be one of them.
A device of this size exploding in any populated area could have disastrous consequences. At Exeter, the university security team played its part in ensuring that did not happen.
Initially Dan Nicoll had four estate patrol officers on duty, but he knew they would need help.
“Once we declared a major incident, we used our SafeZone solution to notify the whole team, including those who were off duty. We told them there was a situation on campus and asked all officers to call in, to confirm their availability.”
SafeZone – the CriticalArc technology now used by at least half of all UK universities – combines multiple functions within its single management platform, including lone worker safety, personal alarm, user location pinpointing, team coordination and targeted mass communications.
It helped Dan Nicoll and his team as they coordinated the evacuation, secured the cordon – now extended to 400m – while the university’s residence operations team arranged accommodation for the displaced students. The campus was 75% occupied with students at the time of the incident, which meant that 1,400 students had to be moved safely to local hotels and other facilities.
The evacuation ran smoothly not just because of this targeted mass communications capability, but because the security team was able to work closely with the various emergency services and external agencies involved, including the police, the Devon Coastguard, and army and navy bomb disposal teams.
“Strictly speaking it was the responsibility of the local authority to evacuate and re-house people, but the fact that our team was able to handle it helped to relieve pressure,” says Peter Scargill.
One option considered was that the bomb could be moved, and detonated at sea. But the risk was too great. So, the next best choice was the controlled detonation on site. It was moved a short distance to more level ground and buried under 400-tonnes of sand to dampen its force.
The blast was heard five miles away and the resulting crater was the size of a double decker bus.
Dan Nicolls reflects that although his officers had never been drilled for this specific eventuality before, they responded brilliantly to the fluid situation they found themselves in.
“This incident proved the value of our emergency preparedness training, and of our capabilities using technology like SafeZone,” he says. “We are now also going to extend the way we use it.
It’s unlikely that another unexploded World War Two bomb will ever be close to the campus – but not impossible. The nature of emergencies is that they are unpredictable. Yet day-to-day risks to students and staff are not.
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