Firefighter Response to Terrorist Bombs, Part II

By James R. Phelan and Charles G. King
With New Introduction by Charles G. King

Part I

When I co-authored this article several years ago, an act as cowardly as crashing two commercial airplanes into the Twin Towers would have been inconceivable. The unthinkable, however, has happened, and it is necessary for us in the fire service to brace ourselves for more of it. Although we can’t predict every act of insanity that fanatics will inflict on us, we can do our best to prepare for them. After the first bombing of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Bombing, we became unhappily aware of the damage that could be done by car bombs. Now we have to face suicide bombers. We in the fire service are on the front line in protecting civilians from the destructive potential of bombs. Which brings us to why we are revisiting this article, which originally appeared in Fire Engineering. The procedures described here stand the test of time and, with regard to responding to terrorist bomb threats and incidents, should be learned, practiced, and utilized.-Charles G. King



The Tools of the Arsonist/Bomber
When public or private property is damaged or destroyed by arson or bombing, determining the cause and origin of the incident often is complicated by the insidious nature of the devices used. Criminals and terrorists in the United States and abroad have been using various types of improvised explosive, incendiary, and chemical devices to attack all types of property for all kinds of reasons. Many of the components of these devises are so common that they do not provide fire and bomb squad investigators with significant leads. The majority of the components for IICDs are available at grocery, drug, hardware, and department stores and cannot be traced to a suspected perpetrator. The methods used to operate these devices are so basic that even they cannot be connected with commonly known criminal or terrorist groups.

When explosives are used to construct and activate an improvised device, on the other hand, there is at least the chance that the perpetrators can be connected to the theft of the explosives from a bunker or military installation. If the explosives were purchased legally, there is the chance that a paper trace can be instituted to identify the purchaser through signatures, receipts, or handwriting. Explosives also might be preliminarily identified by a date and plant-shift code that indicate when and where the materials were procured.

A terrorist who purchases explosive-related materials such as safety fuses, explosive detonators (blasting caps), or incendiary initiators (squibs) would be more conspicuous than one who buys several pounds of potassium or sodium chlorate at various stores and locations. Someone who buys such items as glycerin, concentrated sulfuric acid, hydrogen and sodium peroxide, iodine crystals, aluminum powder, brake fluid, ammonia, and swimming pool chlorinator is more likely to go unnoticed.

A terrorist with even a minimal knowledge of chemistry can use household chemicals effectively to damage and destroy property. The individual constructing incendiary and chemical devices with commonly available items does not have to worry about storing and/or transporting explosives, which can be susceptible to heat, shock, friction, deterioration, and instability.

Some facilities unwittingly accommodate terrorists wishing to use incendiary and chemical devices by having all the necessary components accessible on the target property. Such target properties include educational, financial, medical, research, and public utility facilities.

Protecting against IICD Threats
There are no absolutes when it comes to security. The vulnerability factor is always present, and although protective countermeasures can reduce the degree of vulnerability, they cannot eliminate it.

To reduce vulnerability, identify the steps needed to conform with standard security requirements for the business operation involved. Focus on the accessibility and susceptibility of critical areas – those areas that would adversely affect the facility’s functioning should they be damaged or destroyed or their operations interrupted. Examples include computer offices, electronic switching equipment in a communications facility, power plant equipment in a utility facility, and a laboratory in a research or educational facility.

Although vulnerable, critical areas sometimes are isolated and protected; others are public in nature (train stations, airline terminals, entertainment areas, cafeterias, restrooms, and underground parking garages, for example) and are more susceptible to attack. They are easy to enter, have many entrances and exits, and provide an environment that helps to conceal a terrorist’s or criminal’s activities. Securing them is therefore more difficult. Often when these sites are attacked, innocent bystanders are injured. Although the goal of the attacker(s) is to destroy the property, some terrorists view innocent civilian deaths as an acceptable means of gaining notoriety or drawing attention to the cause.

Countermeasures for protecting and securing public areas and holding injuries to a minimum should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • controlling access to and egress from protected premises.
  • registering and/or identifying visitors.
  • escorting visitors to their appointments.
  • inspecting and identifying all packages and parcels.
  • employing closed-circuit TV surveillance, enhanced lighting, mirrors, barriers, and uniformed guards.
  • reducing the number of areas where improvised devices could be hidden – short (as opposed to long) window curtains and window blinds allow for an unobstructed view of window ledges as well as prevent devices from being hidden.
  • using ashtrays, rubbish containers, and other furnishings made from shatter-resistant materials.
  • inspecting public rest rooms for bombs or other dangerous devices on a continual basis and according to an irregular, unpublished schedule.
  • protecting ancillary areas – such as walkways, parking lots, shrubbery, and flower beds – close to the building.
  • securing appurtenances such as water coolers, trash receptacles, chairs and benches in the rest area, air conditioning units, ventilating hoods, vent pipes and gratings, window awnings, window and door overhangs, building draw pipes, window ledges, power plant and generator units, heating and sewer gratings, and drainage culverts.
  • Securing areas that could hamper normal business activities and operations if attacked; these include facilities for storing gasoline or other fuels, chemicals, and other hazardous materials.

Searching for Bombs rr Incendiary Devices
Although all threats should be treated seriously, searches for IICDs are not always necessary. Managerial or security personnel responsible for employee safety must decide whether a search is required based on the circumstances of the threat and the nature of the target property.

The owner or management of the facility is primarily responsible for planning and implementing the search. Public safety agency personnel usually are available to provide advice, guidance, training, and assistance.

Once a bomb or other dangerous device has been discovered, however, these same public safety representatives – acting on their mandate to protect life and property – can assume responsibility for its safe removal and/or neutralization.

An efficient search can be completed in a relatively short time, or it can take hours. Many variables, including the size of the area or plant, the degree of expertise of the search teams, and in the ingenuity or resourcefulness of the terrorist, influence the nature of the search.

Under normal circumstances, public safety personnel are responsible for searching ancillary property areas such as motor vehicles parked in close proximity to the target property as well as sewer drainage and ventilation sites around the building’s perimeter. Walkways, steam vents, standpipes, electrical switching equipment, exterior power plant facilities, manhole covers, and drainage culverts may fall within the search purview of police and firefighters at the scene, who may be assisted by facility personnel.

Effective techniques for conducting a search follow:

  • Establish separate teams for searching the interior and exterior of the property site. All involved in the effort should maintain radio silence until the bomb or incendiary device has been located and removed or it has been established that none was present. Some IICDs are radio activated and inadvertently could be initiated.
  • Always begin the search at the lowest level of the building, generally the basement, and then proceed in an organized pattern to the roof. Also, begin the search at the perimeter of the room or site and progress toward the center.
  • Tag or identify the area that has been searched so that resources are not wasted in duplicating searches.
  • Establish height levels for the search to ensure that the inspection will be thorough. Levels might include floor to waist, waist to top of the searcher’s head (or eye), and eye level to the ceiling and into the false ceiling.
  • Prior to entering the search area, stop, look, and listen for anything that could be considered out of the ordinary, including extraneous noises or sounds. Turning off all office equipment before entering the search area facilitates this stage of the search. Note anything that appears to have been tampered with and mark it for inspection by a trained public safety representative.
  • Be sure to examine floor coverings, heating vents, registers, blinds, draperies and drapery rods and poles, room furnishings, seat cushions, cabinets, closets, pictures and wall ornaments, planters, ashtray stands, waste and rubbish containers, laboratory facilities, lamps and lighting fixtures, water coolers, fire extinguishers and fire extinguisher cabinets, televisions, radios, telephones, VCRs, dictating equipment, adding machines, carrying cases, desk ornaments, and personal items such as tote bags and miscellaneous clothing. All unopened and opened packages and letters should be inspected by the team or at least be designated for examination by public safety personnel.
  • Use building blueprints or plans to help make sure that no area has been overlooked.
  • Command and Control, as noted above, is extremely important for an efficient search. Notify the Command Center when the search is completed and the area has been designated as being clear. Command and Control also should ensure that employee evacuation routes have been established, cleared, and searched for hidden bombs or other hazards, such as obstructed stairwells, elevators, or escalators.
  • As stated above, remind search team members that their job is to locate and identify suspicious items and not to attempt to remove or neutralize the potentially explosive devices. These are the jobs of the bomb squad.

Types Of Searches
There are three basic types of searches. The overt search normally is conducted by employees familiar with a particular work site. Its advantage is that it is very effective and can be completed in a relatively short time. Its disadvantages are that it causes substantial work disruption, downtime, and loss of production. Also, employees are placed in a tenuous situation, since they are not trained in search procedures and techniques. Therefore, they may not be aware of or acquainted with all the possible hiding places for IICDs and their inherent dangers.

The covert search usually is carried out by managerial or supervisory personnel without the knowledge of the employees under investigation. It is generally ineffective, since these searchers do not know what does and does not belong at a particular site.

Overt and covert searches satisfy only minimal requirements when a bomb threat has been made. The personnel conducting them often perform routinely, without significant motivation. They usually are more concerned with being fast than with being thorough, and they focus more on eliminating the loss of production time than in locating a dangerous device that they believe might not even exist.

Also, employees sometimes react negatively when they learn that the search was conducted without their knowledge and/or assistance. In addition, managers, supervisors, and/or site security personnel rarely exhibit enthusiasm for searching cramped, crowded, or unclean areas, such as workspaces under the control of janitorial or custodial personnel.

Experience has proven the special team search to be the most effective. It involves using representatives from the management level on down. All employees function in every facet of the operation. Teams usually include a representative from each area of operation so that at least one member is familiar with the site, the employees who are part of the work force and belong on site, and any objects that might be foreign or seem to be out of place.

The technique relies on prior organization, planning, and training, which adds to the teams’ enthusiasm and motivation. Members are trained by plant-site personnel and public safety representatives. Production downtime and loss are minimized, and morale is kept high because management is not sacrificing thoroughness for speed.

The search plan ultimately implemented is influenced by factors such as the size of the property or plant; the number of employees on site; the construction characteristics of the building; the plant’s layout, including the types and number of stairways, entrances, and exits; the type of work performed; and the materials used in conducting business (flammable, combustible, toxic, or explosive).

Searching A Motor Vehicle
Many times, terrorists use motor vehicles belonging to individuals, corporations, public utilities, or government agencies as targets of their attacks. Information is the most important element in planning, preparing for, and conducting a motor vehicle search.

Should you be called to conduct such a search, the following procedures are recommended:

  • Call in trained professionals to conduct the search or to provide guidance to searchers whenever there is the possibility that an explosive or incendiary device may be present in a motor vehicle and may be activated by a function of the vehicle.
  • Where appropriate, determine to whom the vehicle is registered, the driver or drivers, and the names of previous passengers or others who may have had access to the vehicle. This information can help determine the target of the terrorist’s attack and maybe even the location of the device.
  • Remote is the key word in vehicle searches, and in this regard it is important to remember that all actions should be done by remote control, whether it be opening the trunk or removing its contents. Use tapes, lines, and hooks when performing functions such as removing hubcaps; opening doors, hoods, and interior hood latches; and raising or lowering window visors.
  • The search generally begins under or around the exterior. Check with mirrors for the presence of extraneous wire, rope, string, or other foreign material that could be in the vehicle’s tires or undercarriage. Pay special attention to trunk locks, locking gasoline caps, and interior hood and trunk releases.
  • Disconnect all electrical components such as the battery.
  • The construction and configuration of a vehicle provide numerous hiding places for many types of explosive or incendiary devices. These include seat cushions, seats, floor mats and coverings, the interior of the roof area, and the glove and/or storage compartments. Be careful, however, not to place undue pressure or weight on the seat cushions, seats, or floor. Incendiary devices can be taped or suspended on the neck of the gas tank. Sometimes the tank itself may have to be removed for inspection of the area.

The vehicle’s compact nature also provides enough containment and confinement to guarantee amplification of the explosive and/or incendiary effects of the device, including blast pressure shock, shrapnel, and heat. Add to this list the fuel within the vehicle, and the destructive potential from flames and secondary explosions increases even more.

Indentifying Incendiary and Explosive Mail Bombs
Incendiary and explosive bombs have been contained in and disguised as letters, books, and parcels. Following are 10 of the most obvious indication of a mail bomb:

  • letters or packages that appear rigid or excessively bulky.
  • wrappers marked by oily stains.
  • packages with an excessive amount of postage.
  • omission of the sender’s name and address.
  • lettering made from cut-out or poster letters instead of being handwritten or typed.
  • package emitting a peculiar odor.
  • package with string or wire visible.
  • package or letter that is unusually resistant to being opened.
  • package showing soft spots, bulges, or previous traces of glue or tape.
  • package of irregular shape.



Charles G King heads Charles G. King Associates, Inc., a fire and arson investigation firm he founded in 1980. Previously, he served 23 years on the Fire Department of New York, where he was a firefighter, a fire marshal, and a supervising fire marshal. He was a special agent assigned to investigate organized crime and corruption at the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation for more than two years. He was also hired by the City of Philadelphia to investigate the origin and cause of the MOVE conflagration in which 11 people died and more than 60 houses burned. His articles on fire and arson investigation have been published in fire service/arson investigation publications. He wrote the chapter on arson investigation for The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering, 1995).

James R. Phelan is a former chief of staff of the FBI Bomb Data Center at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. He has responded to and investigated more than 500 bombings and bomb-related incidents and investigated the explosive aspect of the MOVE incident that occurred in 1985 in the city of Philadelphia in which 11 people died and more than 60 houses burned. He is a private consultant.

Copyright (c) 2002, Charles G. King and James R. Phelan

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