WMD – Where Is Your Focus?

As is usually the case, we in the fire service are quick to focus on the "Acronym of the minute" and put all of our efforts into planning, implementation and evaluation of a training program to show that we are ready for anything. In the case of WMD, large amounts of money from various federal grants have allowed us to even further develop programs that we could not afford previously. But just where are your efforts focused? The latest, new and improved entry suit? The one that allows us to survive while "rescuing" an obvious DOA? Or the latest in monitoring equipment that tells us what we already knew-call the appropriate utility company! All right all you haz-maters, don't get mad and start replying to this without reading all the way through!

Don't get me wrong, I believe any equipment we can get to make our job safer, and to help us in our mission to save lives, I am all for. But I am not for wasting money on equipment and training programs that have no basis in reality. I believe we are missing the point in our WMD focus, as more learned people than I have pointed out, it's not a question of if, but when. There will be another terrorist event in our country, where and when, no one really knows. So, are you ready? Do you have your multi-million dollar response rig fully decked out with the latest equipment? Where is your focus? What "weapon" of mass destruction are you ready for? Biological? Chemical? Nuclear?

How about explosives? What do you have that will help you in a response to an explosion? How much training has your department done on response to buildings that collapse as a result of an explosion? Is your department ready to effectively and efficiently mitigate a collapsed building as a result of an explosion? If not, you had better wake up and smell the powder, because if you have been paying any attention at all to world events in the past several years, bombs are the "weapon" of choice. Whether it's the suicide bomber that explodes a bus full of innocent people or the truck bomb that levels a multi-story building, explosives are, and will continue to be, the main ingredient in terrorism activity around the world.

Some basic statistics from the U.S. Department of State bear this out:

  • In 2001 there were 123 "significant terrorism incidents" worldwide, 51 of them involved explosive devices. The remaining were kidnappings and/or shootings.

  • In 2002 there were 138 events, an alarming 87 involved explosive devices. The others were also kidnappings and/or shootings.

For further reading go to: http://www.usemb.se/terror/index.html

This is the case year after year; more than 50% of all "terrorism" activity involves explosives. If you haven't already figured out a few things, now is the time to start.

  • Who handles bomb incidents in your jurisdiction? How do you contact them?

  • What is your department S.O.P. on bomb incidents? In the event of an unexploded device?

  • How do you react if you have information this could be a "dirty" bomb? This is where all your fancy meters may help!

But wait, aren't most bombings no more than a mass casualty incident? Well, yes and no. There will be a large amount of casualties and you will have to use your MCI training but there are several things to add to that:

  • The possibility of secondary devices. As we saw in Atlanta and in several instances throughout the world, secondary devices are a very real threat to us, the first responder. This is where we can learn from our counterparts in Israel. When responding to the aftermath of a bombing not involving a building, they remove the victims from the immediate area as soon a practical, there is no "stay and play" involved initially. Stabilize quickly and remove them, then treat further if necessary prior to transport.

  • Another point here is NOT to disturb the deceased if at all possible, not just for the FBI and local law enforcement, but for our own protection. Case in point: on August 14, 2001, in Raisi, India armed militants shot and killed three people, then placed grenades under their bodies that exploded when they were examined by the first responders, killing two of them. If you don't absolutely have to, don't disturb any obvious deceased!

  • Control of the scene is vital, even if you have to pull some of your personnel away from triage, get control of the scene right away. This is for your own protection more than anything else.

In the case of explosions involving structures, make sure you follow your structural collapse S.O.P's. (you do have them ---- right?) Add to them the above points and think about this:

In February 2003, a large bomb exploded under a crowded nightclub in Bogota, Columbia killing over 30 and injuring more than 200. Just another bombing in Columbia you say? How about the not-to-well publicized fact that there were 3, yes three secondary devices that exploded 10, 20 and 30 minutes after the first.

Who do you think they were trying to get?

As I stated in the opening, I am all for getting any equipment and training that will make our job safer. But I feel we need to focus more on the likely and not the remote. Make sure your department is ready for the terrorist attack, the bombing and subsequent building collapse. Don't forget the chemical and biological attack possibilities, they can and have happened. Expand your WMD training to include explosives and collapse, and do it now.

The terrorists are ready, are you?