Fire & EMS Response To Suicide Bombing 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 planning, post-incident response, suicide bomber tactics, explosive devices and other timely topics and will focus primarily on the fire and EMS response to these types of incidents. Please follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational purposes only.

Modern suicide bombing was introduced in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. Suicide bombers, or "homicide bombers," as coined by the current Bush administration, are individuals who carry IEDs on their person to detonate in a location with the intention of taking the lives of bystanders as well as their own. Suicide bombings have proven to be one of the most effective ways to successfully penetrate a target and create injuries and havoc. The suicide bomber is also a very difficult threat to counter.

Every day on TV, we see the scenes of chaos and destruction caused by suicide bombers in cafes, buses and streets. It is a very simple and inexpensive process to make a suicide belt or bomb. Could this be one of the possible future threats we are facing in the United States of America? What type of impact would a similar event cause in the United States at a major sporting event or on a crowded bus in your jurisdiction? The suicide bomber has become one of the few remaining ways for terrorists to effectively target their enemies. First responders at all levels must learn to work together to deter suicide bombers from attacking locations in their jurisdictions, and to safely respond in the event an attack occurs.

One way to plan and prepare for future terrorist events is to look at incidents that have already occurred in the United States. Below are two case studies for events that have occurred in the United States.

In the early morning of July 31, 1997, an informant in New York City reported to the New York Police Department (NYPD) that two individuals from the Middle East had built suicide devices and were planning to detonate them on the New York subway. A day earlier, a massive suicide attack occurred in Jerusalem using the "double tap" method that inspired the two men to move forward with their plans.

Upon investigation, it was determined by NYPD to be in fact a credible report. The two young men had successfully built four large pipe bombs "salted" by dozens of four-inch nails. The plan was to strike the Atlantic Avenue B subway line, which is heavily used by the Orthodox Jew population, during the morning rush hour. With just under four hours of investigation and planning, the NYPD Emergency Services Unit (ESU) successfully raided the location where the two individuals were armed with the devices. At 4:50 A.M., the ESU made entry into the apartment, shooting and injuring the two suspects, one of whom was able to flip one of the devices' toggle switches, arming the device, prior to being shot. Fortunately, the devices did not explode. In 1999, both terrorists were sentenced to prison. One has since been released from prison and been deported to the Palestinian Authority. He has since disappeared. The other is serving out his life sentence at the "Supermax" prison in Florence, CO.

In October 2004, a discharged Tennessee National Guardsman with neo-Nazi leanings was arrested after planning to attack the local National Guard Armory, take hostages, murder them and set off explosives. The FBI was contacted after a search of his home and vehicle turned up additional bomb-making materials and weapons, detailed sketches of the armory and plans to suicide bomb a local synagogue. He told investigators that he planned to wear a trenchcoat stuffed with explosives and get himself "as close as possible to children and the rabbi to cause the greatest amount of damage possible."

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":


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.

  • First responders must proceed with extreme caution for their own safety as well as the safety of the public.

Scene Management

The incident management system is one of the best tools for agencies to use to deal with these types of events. Upon being notified of an actual or suspected suicide bomber the incident commander should implement the "5 Cs Rule":


One major issue to be aware of is the method of a "double tap" attack, when minutes after a suicide bomber attack, a second bomber will attack the first responders or gathered crowds.

A suicide bomber response is similar to a hazardous materials response with "zones of control":

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

All appropriate agencies, fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squad, emergency management office and hospitals, should be notified as soon as possible if there is a report of an incident or possible incident.

According to several guidelines the minimum safe evacuation distance for a suicide belt loaded with 10 pounds of explosives is 1,100 feet. The minimum evacuation distance for a suicide vest with 20 pounds of explosives is 1,400 feet. This is something to think about when there could be dozens or even hundreds of people within that range that will need to be quickly and safely evacuated away from the "hot zone" or the moving bomber.

Training Demands

It must be recognized that there are serious domestic and international threat groups/individuals that are willing and able to design and use IEDs against the public and first responders. One important note to remember is that there are active hate groups and extremists located in all 50 states and many foreign countries.

It is also important to remember that several of the public safety agencies involved in the response to the July 7, 2005, attacks in central London, including the London Fire Brigade, had been training for large-scale terrorist attacks since 9/11 and stated that the training paid off during the July 7 response.

Preparation is the key to a suicide bombing incident and that includes 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 suicide bombers and the proper steps for the responder to take. Awareness or recognition training can easily be done for first responders in as little as 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 (fire, rescue, hazmat and EMS) during an incident.


For public safety agencies and special operations teams that are involved in planning and training for suicide bombers and other terrorist incidents it is critical that Operations Security (OPSEC) be utilized in their planning and training efforts. Terrorists and organized criminals can take weeks and months to select their targets and plan their operations. To be successful, they need specific information about personnel, response plans, capabilities, and infrastructures. OPSEC is a five-step risk-management process used by military and security professionals to protect sensitive information that adversaries could use.

"OPSEC for Public Safety" is a new course being offered by the Interagency OPSEC Support Staff for first responders and public safety agencies. Students who successfully complete the training will be able to apply OPSEC to emergency and special event planning; special operations such as SWAT, hazmat, weapons of mass destruction and bomb squad; intelligence and counter terrorism; arson; narcotics task forces; and criminal investigations. The workshop also provides practical examples of using OPSEC in the public safety world. Participants will learn how terrorists collect intelligence and plan their operations, how to identify areas vulnerable to an attack, and countermeasures that can protect information that needs to be secure. For additional information on the "OPSEC for Public Safety" course visit


The world has changed drastically and will continue to do so. The information presented here is intended to help agencies with planning and training efforts. All can hope that suicide bombers will not strike again in the U.S., but if they do, trained and educated first responders can help lessen the impact with a safe and effective response.

The community has entrusted us with their safety, so we must prepare now. Remember to stay alert and stay safe.

August Vernon is the Operations Officer with Response Risk Strategies, a North Carolina-based organization providing specialized public safety response training who recently returned from a year in Iraq as a security contractor. He is also involved with the international initiative to provide terrorism and WMD response training to former member states of the Soviet Union and is also an adjunct instructor for the OPSEC for Public Safety program. Vernon was the assistant coordinator with a large county emergency management office, responsible for interagency coordination and multi-agency public safety training from 2000 to 2004. He has been a member of the fire service since 1990 and is a North Carolina Fire Service Instructor Levels I and II. He also 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