I remember reading in an article in the mid-1990s that warned, hypothetically, about the use of ambulances to transport bombs for terrorist incidents. It was shortly after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City using a rental truck. I am ashamed to admit now that I thought the author of the article was a bit crazy, but since 9/11, I think we have seen that the enemy is quite capable of "thinking outside the box" and that anything is possible.
I was reminded of how our enemies can be innovative when the intelligence service for the United Kingdom issued a warning in late June 2008 that terrorists may be planning attacks with ambulances bought on eBay. I attempted to do my own search on eBay, using the word "ambulance" and setting a minimum price of $1,000 to see how many used ambulances were for sale. I found 37 ambulances available for purchase - most listed for less than $15,000. There was even a military ambulance for sale. I also did a little Google searching and found plenty of websites that sell and trade used ambulances. I cannot help but think of all the spare Memphis Fire Department ambulances and fire trucks sitting in a lot in Memphis waiting to be surplused and sold.
Using ambulances to transport and explode bombs has unfortunately become a reality. In 2002, warnings were issued in New York and New Jersey when two men attempted to buy a fake ambulance from Movie Time Cars Inc., a company that rents replicas of ambulances and police cars to TV and film producers. The company refused to sell the ambulances to the men, recorded the license number of their vehicle and notified the FBI.
It is at about the same time that the men were trying to buy the fake ambulances that U.S. officials warned that al Qaeda may be planning attacks on financial institutions in New York City, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, using emergency vehicles. At the time of the warning, it was learned that federal officials were investigating at least four separate instances of people asking suspicious questions of firefighters and emergency personnel about how ambulances are operated, how fast they go and when drivers should turn on sirens. This was coupled with suspicious people observed videotaping firehouses and fire department operations around firehouses.
Using ambulances as terrorist weapons is nothing new. Israel claims to have thwarted several attempts in the past six years to use ambulances to transport or deliver bombs. Go to Youtube.com, search using the words "ambulance bomb" and you will find several stories detailing the use of ambulances and bombs. Al Qaeda has used ambulances as delivery methods for bombs in Iraq several times.
In 2004, an ambulance loaded with a bomb shattered the front of a Baghdad hotel used by westerners. The bombing killed three people as the United Nations was assessing whether it was safe to send teams to Iraq for upcoming elections. It was believed that a 400- to 500-pound bomb was hidden in the ambulance's patient compartment. In contrast, the bomb that blew up the Murrah Federal Building was estimated at 5,000 pounds and the bomb in the van that exploded beneath the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993 was estimated at 1,500 pounds.
In other parts of Iraq, al Qaeda has used ambulances as a delivery system for bombs. In 2005, an ambulance drove into a wedding party and exploded, killing 12 people and wounding dozens of others. In February of this year, a stolen ambulance drove into an Iraqi police station, killing several people.
The reality now is that ambulances as well as other emergency vehicles can be loaded with explosives and used for terrorist incidents. Unfortunately, in the United States this will be tough to defend against. Ambulances can generally gain access to areas or large crowds where other vehicles cannot go. Turn on the lights and sirens and usually a path will be cleared for the ambulance. Also consider that when there is a terrorist event and rescue personnel are on the scene, a racing ambulance would be allowed access to the scene. Unfortunately, in this scenario, the ambulance could be a secondary bomb intended to harm rescue personnel.
The other unfortunate side of using an ambulance as a truck bomb is that there is plenty of room in the rear patient compartment area to load the vehicle with explosives. Type I and Type III ambulances are larger than the van used in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and that vehicle was estimated to have 1,500 pounds of explosives in it. A Type I or Type III ambulance could easily carry over 2,000 pounds of explosives.
All we can do is what we are doing: Report suspicious activity, and it is especially important to report any thefts of ambulances to federal as well as local authorities.
GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.