Fire & EMS Response to Improvised Explosive Devices

August Vernon discusses agency response to reports of suspicious packages or events reported to involve improvised explosive devices (IEDs).


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
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