Fire & EMS Response To Improvised Explosives Devices

Nov. 22, 2004
Each year across North America there are dozens of events involving actual and suspected IEDs. Unfortunately here in Iraq there are dozens of IED events weekly.
How does your agency respond to reports of suspicious packages or events reported to involve IEDs (Improvised Explosives Devices)?

Each year across North America there are dozens of events involving actual and suspected IEDs. Unfortunately here in Iraq there are dozens of IED events weekly. It is important that we take these valuable and sometimes fatal lessons learned here in Iraq and apply them to our training and planning for critical incidents at home.

This is a critical component of the Homeland Defense concept. 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.

There is a tremendous amount of information available on IED training, response operations, planning, terrorism overviews and other important issues that cannot be covered in the article due to time and size constraints. The article will focus primarily on a few key points. If you have any questions in reference to any of these or other issues please feel free to contact me.


IEDs are one of the largest hazards in Iraq that Coalition Forces face. Enemy forces are now 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 percent of all attacks in Iraq begin with an IED.

In Iraq most IEDs are unique in nature because the builder has had to improvise with the materials at hand. IEDs are also designed to defeat a specific target or type of target, so they will generally become difficult to detect and protect against as they become more sophisticated. They have been employed against U.S. forces by several means including:

  • Using command detonated devices
  • Using locally purchased battery powered doorbell devices to remotely initiate IEDs
  • Using speaker and similar type wiring to connect the explosives
  • Decoy devices (bait devices) out in the open to slow or stop U.S. forces in the kill zones
  • Grenades hidden is soda cans
  • Devices thrown from bridges/overpasses
  • Devices thrown in front of vehicles,
  • Buried in potholes or in the side of the road
  • Stuffed in dead animals or trash piles on the side of the road
  • Hung from bridges and signs
  • Placed in garbage bins
  • Inside of vehicles as VBIEDs (vehicle borne IEDs). These can be placed on the side of the road with a flat tire, hood up, etc.
  • Attached to suicide bombers (for additional information on suicide bombers see, August, Vernon, "Fire/EMS Response to Suicide Bombings")

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 somewhat 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, etc.

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


If a first responder (Fire, EMS and Law Enforcement) comes across a suspicious device/package during routine activities (meth lab response, salvage and overhaul, man down call, vehicle stop, etc.) immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. DO NOT USE YOUR RADIO for this activity until you are some distance away (100-300 meters) from the device.

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

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

Remember that if you discover either an exploded or unexploded IED that 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 (IMS) and Unified Command (UC) 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 (IC) should implement the 4 C's RULE:

CONFIRM there is a device. CLEAR the area. CORDON off the location. CONTROL all entry and exit points.

An IED, UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) or APD (anti-personnel device) response is also similar to a hazardous materials response with your "zones of control": Hot Zone (where device is located), Warm Zone (where the perimeter will be established) and the Cold Zone (location of Unified Command Post, staging, etc.)

All appropriate agencies (Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement, Bomb Squad, OEM, etc.) should be notified as soon as possible.


Also remember that if there is an actual device there is a good chance that there is a secondary device 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 of secondary devices being left for first responders such as suicide bombings in Israel and the Madrid train bombings in Spain. In the U.S. there have been several cases of secondary devices being planted. Eric Rudolph was well known for planting secondary devices.

In the 1999 Columbine High School event there were several devices placed in the parking lots and near the typical emergency services staging areas. The two attackers in Littleton, Colorado had watched the fire department response to fire alarms at the school in the past and planted IEDs in those same areas. STAY ALERT!


E911 and dispatch systems should have a system in place to dispatch first response units to a suspected IED or UXO call. Words such as ?bombs? or ?IEDs? should not be used over the radio system. Remember that the media and public are listening!

Specifics of a call should be given over a vehicle computer type system or cell phones. In the event of an actual detonation with injuries, time becomes critical and should be dispatched as such. At that time 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 the following:

  • Medical calls with burns or trauma
  • "Man down" calls
  • Structure fires, rubbish fires
  • Reports of explosions or "loud booms"


Another important lesson learned here in Iraq in regard to IEDs has been the use of "Tactical Medics". Having trained tactical medics integrated into our teams has proven to be a real life saver here in Iraq. They can provide medical care within seconds of an injury even under hazardous conditions or small arms fire. Both the military and contractor field teams continue to expand this valuable capability. Here in Iraq there are times we can be hours away from any field hospital or medical setting and it could take a considerable amount of time for a MEDIVAC flight to respond. This especially is when our team?s tactical medics have proven invaluable during incidents. There is certainly a demand for tactical medics in the United States.

Tactical medics are great assets to any agency or special team on "Critical Incident" responses (active shooters, barricaded subjects, civil unrest, IEDs, VIP escorts, meth lab responses, etc.) These medics have received additional training in multiple subjects such as firearms use, remote site medical care, IEDs, terrorism, preventive medicine, tactics, ballistic injuries, etc. One excellent resource for additional information on tactical medicine and tactical medic training is the company


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.

Preparation is the key to an IED 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 IEDs/UXO and the proper steps for the responder to take. Successful IED/UXO 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, contact them to ask for assistance with your training and planning. Most bomb techs will be glad to provide your agency with training on their procedures and equipment since they will require your support during an actual incident.

One key issue for Fire/EMS is that it is a good idea 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 in the United States for first responders is the Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings (IRTB) course located in Soccoro, New Mexico. The course is funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This course provides the first responder with a tremendous amount of information regarding planning for and responding to IED or terrorist events. The student will be able to personally witness actual live explosive events ranging from a small PVC pipe bomb to a large VBIED (car bomb). The course also allows the student to return to their respective agency and provide awareness level training. For additional information please see


Though not related to Iraq, there is one key issue that we should address. This is the most common response in the U.S. where a first responder could possibly be exposed to some type of IED type hazard.

One growing hazard related to IEDs that all first responders need to be aware of is Meth or Clan Labs. In addition to the chemical and process hazards at a clandestine drug lab, responders need to be aware of anti-personnel devices (APD) or booby traps that can include IEDs. These devices are designed to protect the owner?s investment while they are away and to serve as warning devices to aid the owner's or operator's escape from the site. Unfortunately they are also designed to incapacitate first responders and have done so in the past. Every year across the United States there are thousands of drug labs discovered and several first responders injured at these scenes. In a meth lab situation DO NOT touch anything and stay ALERT!

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. Please follow all local procedures and guidelines when responding to these types of events. The world has drastically changed since 9-11-2001 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 currently a U.S. Department of Defense Security Contractor serving in Iraq, providing high threat day/night tactical armed escorts for personnel, convoys and other assets. He has served with Emergency Management since 2000 and the Fire Service since 1990. Currently a North Carolina Fire Service Instructor, Vernon served as a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical Operations Specialist with the U.S. Army from 1991-1995. He teaches courses in Hazardous Materials, Terrorism/WMD Response and Incident Management and has written articles published in various publications. August can be reached for reference questions, comments and presentations at [email protected].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!