Experts warn that terrorism may increase now that the war against Iraq has ended. It is time, therefore, for firefighters to bone up on techniques that can help them recognize and deal with bomb threats and terrorist attacks.

Depending on the size and the range of responsibilities mandated to your fire company, you could be called on to perform a variety of functions ranging from searching a premises for explosives to extinguishing fires ignited by incendiary devices.

Some tried-and-true methods for dealing with such threats are presented below. The device commonly called a “bomb” is referred to as an “improvised explosive, incendiary and/or chemical device” (IICD) because this terminology encompasses all forms of terrorist threats—from plastic explosives to a Molotov cocktail to an incendiary mix of sodium peroxide and granulated sugar. Implied in the term “improvised” is the possibility or probability that the device was constructed from materials readily available to anyone.

In many cities firefighters receive some training in explosives, incendiaries, and chemicals and the ways they are used to construct improvised devices. However, unless firefighters specifically are charged by law with the ultimate responsibility of dealing with all aspects of these devices, they usually perform only limited functions and receive minimal training.


The following techniques offer some guidance for responding to a scene where a bomb or chemical poses a fire threat.

  • Never attempt to move, disarm, or otherwise tamper with an explosive or incendiary device unless you have been trained to handle these dangerous items. And, spend as little time as possible in the vicinity of the device. Firefighters are not bomb technicians, and they are not expected to act as bomb technicians. Any action taken to neutralize or remove an IICD by anyone other than a trained professional can have disastrous consequences.

Any imprudent action unexpectedly could detonate, ignite, or activate a device and expose occupants, employees, and onlookers to unnecessary danger. If the police or bomb squad is on scene when you arrive, take your lead from the specialists present.

Nevertheless, you can perform many important functions at the scene even if you are not a bomb technician and, therefore, cannot remove or otherwise handle the potentially explosive device. Police and bomb personnel on the scene, for example, welcome any additional knowledge of explosives—their effects, nomenclature, and measures for diminishing their potential to cause damage. This information contributes to a well-coordinated public safety response.

  • Evacuate the area immediately; maximize the distance between the site of the suspected device and civilians. When possible, the evacuation route should be a safe distance from glass windows and doors and other materials that shatter easily. Evacuation routes should not be dependent on mechanical and/or electrical mechanisms such as elevators and escalators. The alternate means of egress should be wide enough and free of obstructions to reduce the likelihood of panic. Pay special attention to evacuating disabled individuals.

Civilian areas should be at least 300 to 500 feet away to prevent injuries due to the explosion and its effects, including harmful toxic vapors. The distance should be increased according to the type of improvised device, the quantity of explosives or hazardous materials involved, and/or the quantity of glass or other shatterable material in the building, around its exterior, or on the site. Atmospheric conditions such as the speed and direction of the wind and the cloudceiling level also should be factored in when determining evacuation distances.

  • Vent by opening doors, windows, and other structural areas such as roof vents, skylights, and hatch covers. The less confinement, the less damage or destruction will be done should the explosive device detonate. Venting does not eliminate the damage and destruction caused by the device’s going off, but it lessens the effects of blast pressure and shock.
  • Be aware that more than one bomb or incendiary device may be present and that safety hazards for emergency responders exist.


Planning for civilian protection entails knowing the signs of an impending explosion and the primary and secondary explosive effects of a chemical explosion or bomb detonation.

Subsequent to a detonation, the solid material is converted to a rapidly expanding gas in approximately 1/10,000th of a second. These gases create up to 700 tons of pressure per square inch as they are pushed away from the detonation point and travel at a speed greater than 13,000 mph. The expanding gases, which move in a spherical direction, create a pressure wave that shatters or destroys any object or material in its path. The power generated by the gases decreases as distance from the detonation point increases.

The effects of a chemical explosion include blast, pressure, and fragmentation (primary and secondary). Other secondary effects include noise, light, and heat—the thermal incendiary explosive effect. This thermal effect is evidenced as a bright, white, somewhat spherical flash that occurs the instant a chemical explodes or a bomb detonates.

The thermal incendiary chemical explosive effects that follow the initial explosion can cause significant damage. In the case of high explosives such as dynamite, TNT, and C-4, temperatures can approach 7,200°F but usually only for a short time. Low explosives such as black and smokeless powder produce less intense thermal incendiary effects, but they are of longer duration. Incidents during which low explosives are ignited or confined and explode tend to set the surrounding ground cover on fire quickly, whereas TNT or C-4 detonated on the same surrounding ground cover usually leaves only a black scorch mark. The thermal incendiary effect can ignite surrounding flammable and combustible materials. Flammable vapors, such as those produced by gasoline, are extremely vulnerable.

Toxicity, which is a secondary effect, is always present when these devices are involved. WTien responding to an incident where there is a threatened use of an IICD, therefore, prepare for the possibility of adverse toxic effects.

You should wear SCBA routinely to this type of incident. When ventilation is not adequate, health risks are significant. Some toxins commonly encountered during these incidents, particularly in the enclosed area, include the thick purple vapor consisting of iodine crystals and aluminum powder produced by a chemical device and which is initiated by applying water.


In addition to life safety duties, you may have to survey the building to ensure that all electrical circuits are intact, all extraneous electrical power has been shut down, and all material gas and fuel oil lines are in proper operating order and have not been damaged or ruptured. You also may have to make sure that the gas or oil flow to the target facility has been shut off; fires caused by bombing devices usually have been traced to these fuels.

Fires that begin after the explosive device has been detonated and are attributed to the thermal incendiary effect normally occur when a significant quantity of combustible or flammable material is present in the area of detonation.


Crimes may be part of the scenario of a terrorist-threatened site. You maybe responding to a scene at which a fire has been set or an assault, homicide, burglary, or suicide has occurred. Your activities under these circumstances normally would be subordinated to those of the lawenforcement personnel in charge.

You could, however, be the first on the scene if there is a fire that must be suppressed—and you may not be aware that it is a crime scene. When an explosion occurs in a building or motor vehicle, there are usually enough smoke and flames for the fire department to be called in first. In such cases, by the time the fire is extinguished and police have determined that a bomb may have caused the explosion, you already may be in the process of overhauling.

When responding under such conditions, you should, of course, remove all victims from the danger area and administer appropriate medical attention, in accordance with fire department procedure. Then, ensure that the fire is contained and extinguished, using the most expedient means available, as long as it is appropriate.

In addition, you should have in mind the possibility that the fire could have been caused by an IICD and, consequently, you should be especially careful not to wash away any valuable evidence with the hoses. You can preserve evidence by changing from a solid stream to a fog stream, thereby substantially reducing the water pressure. Also, when overhauling, do not sweep any debris out to the street where it inadvertently may be washed into drainage areas or sewers. Move building or vehicle debris as little as possible.

Items that constitute evidence will be present unless they have been vaporized or thrown clear of the scene by the force of the explosion. Many people mistakenly believe that the fire destroys the evidence, but this definitely is not the case. The fire may char and burn evidence, but it does not destroy it. Bomb components, for example, are still identifiable after a fire.

Other items that could provide evidence include fragments of the bomb container, an arming or timing mechanism (a clock or watch) or any type of integrated circuit components or mercury, microtoggle switches, detonators (blasting caps), and wires or pieces of unconsumed explosives or power supply (battery components). An investigator should be able to find these bomb components at the scene unless they were destroyed during the firefighting and overhaul operations.

In addition to the above precautions, bring to the attention of crime scene investigators any item or material that appears foreign to the scene or out of place, and note the area of greatest damage or destruction—this area might be the seat of the explosion. Protect the area to every extent possible, since it may contain the most evidence. Reroute or direct water flow from a target building to ensure that the evidence is not flooded down the sewer or into drainage areas. Employ salvaging techniques and cover critical areas and items to protect them from excessive water displacement.

Be alert to other types of evidence as well: extraneous tire tracks and footprints; inappropriate amounts of or oddly positioned clothing; blood; and miscellaneous items such as chewing gum wrappers, cigarette lighters, and matchbooks.

Be extremely cautious and constantly alert for anything that appears to be out of the ordinary, such as a secondary device or a bomb left by the terrorist. Often a device is planted specifically to harm fire and police personnel responding to the scene.


A coordinated response to bomb threats ensures that life and property will be protected and preserved. There is no universally accepted response to these incidents. Each potential terrorist target (corporation, public utility, medical establishment, financial organization, or educational institution, for example) must develop and implement a plan that suits and meets its needs and circumstances.

Your department can enhance its effectiveness by developing a response plan that incorporates the following: a Command and Control Center; a Threat Response Team, headquartered at the Command and Control Center, to coordinate with public safety agencies, public utilities, and tenants who occupy the property site; and input from all levels of personnel in the occupied building or facility— to prevent wasting time and duplicating efforts.

The Threat Response Team evaluates factors such as the following:

  • the physical construction and layout of the work site.
  • the type of work performed there.
  • the nature of the site materials.
  • the number and location of employees.
  • the number and quality of access and evacuation routes.
  • the level of the site’s vulnerability.
  • an evaluation of the site’s security system and staff.
  • the stability of the local civilian community.
  • the presence of labor unrest in the facility’ or comparable facilities nearby’.
  • whether the nature of the work performed at the facility is provocative or controversial and likely to spark a terrorist or criminal attack.
  • whether the targeted site has been subjected to previous threats or attacks and whether a viable threat exists at present.

These factors influence decisions such as whether to evacuate and/or to cease or eventually resume normal work operations should an attack be threatened.

The Response Team also evaluates threatening messages received by telephone or switchboard operators at the facility. Communications personnel should be trained to get as much information as quickly as possible concerning the threat and the caller. They should try to obtain specific details such as the following:

  • the place and location of the device.
  • the type of explosive or incendiary device involved.
  • the method of initiation or ignition (mechanical, electronic, booby trap?).
  • the type and quality of explosive and incendiary filler (dynamite, black powder, Molotov, chemical ingredients?).
  • the caller’s age, sex, voice, accent, and race; clarity of voice.
  • the caller’s demeanor.
  • apparent signs of mental disorientation, inebriation, speech impairment.
  • background noises and street names; they may help to identify the locale where the call is being made.

All threats initially should be treated as though an actual explosive or incendiary device is involved. Specificity sometimes is a key to determining veracity. The more specific the details provided, the more seriously the threat should be taken, the more elaborate should be the response, and the more credibility that should be given to the call. Some terrorist threats that had been very’ general and nonspecific in nature, however, then were followed by attempted bombings. Until proven otherwise, therefore, react and respond to a terrorist threat as if an 1ICD is present.


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 devices 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.


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.


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 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, carry-
  • ing 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.


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 work spaces 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).

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