Fire & EMS Response To Suicide Bombing Events

August Vernon presents the first in a series of articles that will address the growing threat of suicide bombers in the U.S. and how public safety agencies can effectively plan for and respond to these events.


This is the first in a series of articles that will address the growing threat of suicide bombers in the U.S. and how public safety agencies can effectively plan for and respond to these events. The articles will cover such issues as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, pre-incident...


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Recent Events

Incident across the globe have highlighted the growing threat of suicide bombers and the use of IEDs. On July 7, 2005, four coordinated suicide bomber explosions rocked central London during the morning rush hour. More than 50 people were killed and over 700 injured. The blasts occurred in a span of just 30 minutes and were well coordinated. It is important to remember that these devices were built from readily available commercial and household chemicals and materials.

In response to the bombings, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised the terrorist-alert level from yellow to orange for all mass transit systems in the United States, and cities nationwide increased security for their bus, train and subway systems. Since the bombings there have been several other explosives devices and suspects discovered.

On March 11, 2004, multiple "backpack" train bombings in Madrid, Spain, killed 200 people and injured over 1,000. Some of the suspects in this case later killed themselves by the use of explosives when surrounded by law enforcement to avoid capture. Several additional devices were found that had been planted for first responders.

Hundreds of American soldiers and Iraqis have been killed by roadside and suicide bombs in Iraq in the past two years. The worst roadside bomb attack took place on Aug. 2, 2005, near Baghdad, when 14 Marines were killed in one blast. On Feb. 29, 2004, two simultaneous suicide bombings occurred in northern Iraq that killed over 100 people. Recent intelligence has stated that Al Qaeda has been actively recruiting potential suicide bombers, female and western-looking members.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated in 2004 that the No. 1 threat to the new government and U.S. forces in Iraq comes from suicide bombers. As early as 2002, former FBI Director Robert Mueller stated, "Suicide bombers are inevitable in the United States." Former CIA Counter Terrorism Chief Vince Cannistraro says, "There is no 100% defense against suicide bombers, and Vice President Dick Cheney has stated he sees "a real possibility" that walk-in suicide bombers may hit the United States if those who have attacked Israel succeed in changing the situation in the Middle East.

Since 2000, more than 900 Israelis have been killed in bombings and shootings, and the majority of these fatalities are caused by suicide/homicide bombers. Suicide bombings have occurred in Afghanistan, Argentina, Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Israel, Turkey, East Africa, Croatia, Chechnya, Yemen, Panama, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Lessons Learned

Middle Eastern and Far East experiences have shown:

  • Men, women and older children have been suicide bombers.

  • Targets have included buses, clubs, trains, restaurants, police checkpoints and other public locations where there are large groups of people, or "soft targets."

Do not assume these would be the methods of attack in the United States.

Pre-Detonation Response

Fire department and EMS pre-detonation response will take place before there is an explosion. If there is a report of a possible suicide bomber, little time will be available for law enforcement intervention if the suspect is indeed a homicide bomber, especially when they are possibly moving towards their target.

  • Call takers and dispatchers must get as much information as possible. Every effort should be made to keep the callers on the line during the response. Extreme specificity should be obtained as to the direct knowledge of the callers as to why a person is suspected of being a possible bomber.

The FBI has designed a "suspicious factor," or indicator, of a possible suicide bomber, using the acronym "ALERT":

A L E R T

Post-Detonation Response

Fire department and EMS post-detonation response will take place after an explosion has occurred. A suicide bomber event has the overwhelming potential for a large number of victims and fatalities.