Some members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community were surprised the morning of May 26 by a message they received by text and through email of a “Bluepoint weapons threat alert” at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill. The automatic message sent by the BluePoint system read “BLUEPOINT WEAPONS THREAT ALERT MOBILE 1 Portable Panic, Beth Shalom ELC & Congregation.”
Twenty minutes later, at 9:50 a.m., a second message was sent clarifying that the original alert was a false alarm.
The notifications were the first transmitted as part of the BluePoint Rapid Emergency Response System, a network of local alarm stations that notify police, other first responders, people working in the building where an alarm is activated, and other community leaders of a potential security threat. “The system worked exactly as it was designed to work,” said Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
The notifications went out when the pull station on the second floor of the building was activated, she said. The cause of the activation is being determined.
Brokos noted there was an immediate police response and executive directors throughout the community were alerted so they could make appropriate decisions for their facilities. During the time between the initial alert and the all-clear, police verified there was not an active threat in Beth Shalom.
The procedure is analogous to a false fire alarm at a school where first responders are required to verify there is no fire before allowing students and staff back into the building, Brokos said.
While the BluePoint system worked successfully, some people who were in the building at the time experienced anxiety when they received the first notification, recalling the attack at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, said Ken Turkewitz, Beth Shalom’s outgoing interim executive director.
“Certainly, it rattled some people,” he said. “You know, 10/27 is not that far in the rearview mirror. Some people were rattled, and it was a challenge to get word out to people quickly enough to put them all at ease.”
The event was “pretty traumatic” said one person working at the synagogue at the time of the alert, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“When you open [the text or email], it doesn’t tell you anything,” the individual said. “It has no human information.”
In their initial panic, that person forgot the training they had received. Had the alert included short specific directions such as, “Lockdown procedures include turning off your light, silencing your phone, locking your door,” as well as some supportive words such as “the police have been called and are on their way — we will keep you updated with more information as we receive it,” their panic might have been assuaged, they said.
Anxiety and panic are natural reactions to this type of situation, according to Stefanie Small, director of counseling services and senior services at Jewish Family and Community Services.
“When a crisis happens, and it doesn’t matter if it is a false alarm, your body goes into an automated response,” she said. “It goes into fight, flight or freeze. Your adrenaline is what’s pushing you to make decisions. Your brain doesn’t have a chance to tell you how to react.”
Anything that reminds Pittsburghers of the trauma they went through during the attack at the Tree of Life building could induce a similar response, Small said. And the recent uptick in violent antisemitic attacks and vandalism around the country added to the anxiety many felt.
“I think it’s really important that people know our bodies react the same whether it’s an immediate threat or a perceived threat,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership. A counselor from that organization was at Beth Shalom on May 28, offering support for those traumatized by the alert.
Feinstein said there are a few steps people in similar situations should follow to help minimize the anxiety they feel.
“One is to allow the feelings to be there,” she said. “Two is to get somewhere safe. Three is to ground yourself in the place that is safe.”
Both Feinstein and Small recommend taking deep breaths and acknowledging what around you makes you feel safe as helpful techniques.
Not everyone in Beth Shalom during the false alarm was traumatized by the event.
Audrey Glickman, assistant to Rabbi Seth Adelson and a survivor of the Tree of Life attack, said she had no adverse reaction.
“The same response as usual kicked in — ‘There’s something happening, we have to find out what’s happening, we have to take appropriate action. What is the course of action? Let’s do that.’ That was my response,” she said. “It’s probably atypical. I’ve learned since the shooting that many people don’t feel that way.”
Beyond the emotions triggered by the event, Brokos said there are lessons to be learned by the first alert from the BluePoint system.
“For the after-action review, we’re going to give Beth Shalom the opportunity to talk about what went well and what didn’t,” she said. “The police already have comments they want to share with our folks, City Emergency Management has comments they want to share. And it’s an opportunity for our locations to share similar experiences.”
The report, Brokos said, will help the community be better prepared for events in the future.
“We’re not as happy as we’d like to be,” Turkewitz said. “It pointed out where we have to do more training to smooth the rough edges.”
He said the synagogue had a fire alarm sound a year-and-a-half ago and learned some lessons from that event as well.
“You analyze it, figure out where your weak points are and what you can do better,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.