Fire & EMS Response to Improvised Explosive Devices

How does your agency respond to reports of suspicious packages or events reported to involve improvised explosives devices (IEDs)? Each year across North America, there are dozens of incidents involving actual and suspected IEDs. In Iraq, dozens of them occur every week. It is important that we take...


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How does your agency respond to reports of suspicious packages or events reported to involve improvised explosives devices (IEDs)? Each year across North America, there are dozens of incidents involving actual and suspected IEDs. In Iraq, dozens of them occur every week. It is important that we take the valuable, and sometimes fatal, lessons learned in Iraq and apply them to our training and planning for critical incidents at home.

First responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, possibly including suspicious packages and IEDs. I have tried to take some of these lessons learned and integrate them into a first responder training package. A tremendous amount of information is available on IED training, response operations, planning, terrorism overviews and other important issues. This article will focus primarily on a few key points.

Iraq IED Overview

IEDs are one of the largest hazards in Iraq that coalition forces face. Enemy forces are using IEDs as the preferred method of attack on U.S. forces, as this allows the attacker a standoff capability to initiate an attack and then quickly escape the area. Currently, 40% to 60% of all attacks in Iraq begin with an IED.

In Iraq, most IEDs are unique because the builders must improvise with the materials at hand. IEDs are also designed to defeat a specific target or type of target, so as they become more sophisticated, they generally are difficult to detect and protect against. They are used against U.S. forces by several means:

  • Command-detonated devices
  • Locally purchased battery-powered doorbells to remotely initiate IEDs
  • Speaker and similar-type wiring to connect explosives
  • Decoy devices (bait devices) out in the open to slow or stop U.S. forces in the kill zones
  • Grenades hidden in soda cans
  • Devices thrown from bridges and overpasses
  • Devices thrown in front of vehicles, buried in potholes or on the side of a road, stuffed in dead animals or trash piles, hung from bridges and signs, placed in garbage bins and inside vehicles as car bombs or attached to suicide bombers

U.S. forces and security contractor teams in Iraq use several methods to deal with this hazard when on the road. All personnel in a vehicle remain constantly alert and look for these devices or places where they may be hidden. They vary routes and times, switching lanes at random and use many other means (not listed here due to security concerns) to reduce the risk from these devices.

These tactics are necessary due to the extreme environment in Iraq. But when responding to an IED event or possible IED, responders need to become more "tactical" in their thinking. When responding, get all the dispatch information you can. Look at the routes into the event. Survey the scene for a moment. Keep an escape route to get out of the scene quickly. Look at the area where you are parking and staging. Be aware of secondary devices.

The methods of attack listed above are described in the Al Qaeda Manual and on several extremist websites and are easily available to anyone with an interest. Any of the means described above could be used in the U.S. during a terrorist attack. The design and implementation of these devices are limited only by the imagination of the bomber. An IED can look like ANYTHING!

How To Respond

A first responder (fire, EMS or law enforcement) who comes across a suspicious device/package during routine activities such as a meth lab response, salvage and overhaul, man-down call or vehicle stop should immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. Do not use your radio until you are a safe distance from the device.

If you find yourself next to an IED, take these steps:

  • Call out to other personnel to stop moving
  • Stop and look around for any other devices or wires
  • Do not touch or move anything
  • Do not operate light or power switches
  • Move out of the area the same way you entered by retracing your steps

If you discover an exploded or unexploded IED, you have discovered a crime scene and it must be treated as such. Several important decisions must be made at the scene. The incident management system and unified command are some of the best tools for agencies to use to deal with these types of events.

Upon being notified of an actual or suspected IED the incident commander should implement the "4 Cs Rule", confirm there is a device, clear the area, cordon off the location, and control all entry and exit points.

The response to an IED, unexploded ordnance (UXO) or anti-personnel device (APD) is similar to a hazardous materials response. Use your "zones of control":

  • Hot zone - where the device is located)
  • Warm zone - where the perimeter will be established)
  • Cold zone - location of a unified command post and staging)

All appropriate agencies (fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squad, emergency management office and others as needed) should be notified as soon as possible.

Secondary Devices

If an actual device is involved, there is a good chance that a secondary device is present. Units must be aware of their surroundings and search the critical areas such as where the command post and staging will be located. In the Middle East, there have been several incidents in which secondary devices were left for first responders. The same holds true for suicide bombings in Israel and in the Madrid, Spain, train bombings. In the U.S., there have been several cases of secondary devices being planted. In the 1999 Columbine High School incident, several devices were placed in the parking lots and near the typical emergency services staging areas. The two attackers in Littleton, CO, had watched the fire department's response to fire alarms at the school and planted IEDs in those areas. Stay alert!

Dispatch Protocols

Emergency dispatch centers should have systems in place to dispatch first responders to a suspected IED, APD or UXO call. Words such as "bombs" or "IEDs" should not be used over the radio system, the media and public are listening!

Specifics of a call should be given over a vehicle computer text system or via cell phones. In the event of a detonation with injuries, time becomes critical, as there will be an overriding need for a rapid, coordinated response.

In the U.S., IED detonations have also been reported as other types of emergencies, including:

  • Medical calls with burns or trauma
  • "Man-down" calls
  • Structure or rubbish fires
  • Explosions or "loud booms"

Tactical Medics

Another important lesson learned in Iraq in regard to IEDs has been the use of "tactical medics." These medics have received training in multiple subjects such as firearms use, remote-site medical care, IEDs, terrorism, preventive medicine, tactics and ballistic injuries. Trained tactical medics integrated into military and contractor teams can provide medical care within seconds of an injury, even under hazardous conditions or small-arms fire. In Iraq, teams can be hours away from any field hospital or medical setting and it could take a considerable amount of time for a medical evacuation flight to respond.

Tactical medics in the U.S. are great assets to any agency or special team on "critical incident" responses such as active shooters, barricaded subjects, civil unrest, IEDs, VIP escorts and meth lab responses. One excellent resource for additional information on tactical medicine and tactical medic training is the company www.tacticalelement.cc.

IED Training

It must be recognized that serious threats are posed by domestic and international groups and individuals. They are willing and able to design and use IEDs against the public and first responders. Hate groups and extremists are active in all 50 states.

Preparation is the key to a mitigating an IED incident and that includes having a clear idea of your actions before the incident occurs. The first step in your preparation is providing proper training to all response personnel. This should include an awareness of the hazards associated with IEDs, APDs and UXOs and the proper steps for the responder to take. Awareness-level or recognition-level training can easily be provided to first responders in a few hours.

If there is a local bomb squad or hazardous devices unit in your area, ask for its assistance with your training and planning. Most bomb technicians will be glad to provide your agency with training on their procedures and equipment, since they will require your support during an incident. One key issue for fire and EMS departments is to become familiar with your local bomb squad entry suits so in case of emergency you will know how to remove one from an injured bomb technician.

Another excellent training resource for first responders is the Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings (IRTB) course in Soccoro, NM, funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This course gives first responders information regarding planning for and responding to IED or terrorist events. The student will be able to witness live explosive events ranging from a small pipe bomb to a large car bomb. The course also allows the student to return to their respective agency and provide awareness-level training. For additional information, see www.emrtc.nmt.edu.

Meth Labs

One growing hazard related to IEDs that all first responders need to be aware of is meth and other clandestine drug labs. This is the most common response in the U.S. where a first responder could be exposed to some type of IED. In addition to the chemical and process hazards at a clandestine drug lab, responders need to be aware of APDs or booby traps that can include IEDs. These devices are designed to protect an owner's investment while away and to serve as warning devices to aid the owner's or operator's escape from the site. They are also designed to incapacitate first responders. Every year across the United States, thousands of such labs discovered and several first responders injured at these scenes. In this situation, stay alert and do not touch anything!

The world has changed drastically since 9/11 and will continue to do so. The information presented here is intended to help agencies with planning and training efforts. The community has entrusted us with their safety, so we must prepare now.


August Vernon is the assistant coordinator with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, NC, Office of Emergency Management. He recently returned from a year in Iraq as a security contractor. Vernon is also an adjunct instructor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's OPSEC for Public Safety program. He has been involved in emergency management since 2000 and a member of the fire service since 1990. Vernon served in the U.S. Army as an NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) Operations Specialist. Vernon can be reached reference for questions or comments at fdtac@yahoo.com.

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