Post-Blast Response to Explosions

BY AUGUST VERNON

Post-blast (or post-detonation) response takes place after an explosion has occurred. An explosives event has the potential to overwhelm first responders because of the large number of victims and fatalities and the extensive property destruction.

It is very important that responders can safely respond to these types of incidents. In the interest of public safety and in view of current trends, it is prudent to review incidents involving explosives and to continue to develop effective public safety guidelines. Following are summaries of two relatively recent incidents in which explosives were used domestically and internationally.


Post-blast vehicles from training exercises: (1) car [photo by Trent Walker, Greensboro [NC] Police Department, Special Operations Division];

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. Follow all local procedures and guidelines when responding to these types of events.

INCIDENTS

On Friday, December 12, 2008, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated inside the West Coast Bank in Woodburn, Oregon. Two police officers, including one bomb technician, were killed in the explosion; two others were injured. During the four-day siege in Mumbai, India, that began on Wednesday, November 26, 2008, the latest open-source reporting indicated that seven IEDs were employed and more than 170 persons were killed and more than 300 were injured.


(2) a van (photo by author); and

This article provides some easy-to-follow procedures and guidelines responders and incident commanders (ICs) can use in their planning and training efforts. These guidelines and procedures should not replace common sense and experience. It is impossible to plan for every situation that may occur. New “best practices” lesson-learned training becomes available on an ongoing basis. Update your plans regularly. Explosives are the number one choice of terrorists around the globe. IED attacks can consist of anything from homemade pipe bombs to sophisticated military ordnance; however, emergency service agencies are more likely to encounter IEDs than military weapons in their day-to-day responses.1


(3) a bus (photo by Jeff Rubin, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Aloha, OR).

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PLANNING CONSIDERATIONS

The goal of this article is to prepare first responders with some basic tools and information needed to develop or assess a multiagency explosives incident plan. All agencies share some of the same priorities during an explosives event, including life safety and incident stabilization. Planning and interagency cooperation for any terrorist or criminal attack type of event should be paramount. Several issues will need to be addressed during the planning phase. A coordinated effort among all agencies is needed to ensure a safe and effective response. Responder safety is paramount during this type of event.

DISPATCH AND RESPONSE PHASE

  • When responding, get all the dispatch information available. The nature of the call and the location are important.
  • Standard guidelines against the use of cell phones and radios may not be applicable, as there will be an overriding need for a rapid, coordinated response. Responders must be aware of the threat of secondary devices, but there is no way to effectively and quickly rule out secondary devices at a large scene. If possible, do not use radios within 150 feet of the blast site, and use other resources such as runners in the hot zone.

ARRIVAL ON-SCENE

  • Proceed with extreme caution for your own safety.
  • Approach from upwind and uphill, if possible.
  • Slow down when approaching the area, and conduct a 360° scan during your scene size-up or windshield survey.
  • Look for objects and people that seem out of place for the location or time of the call. If it looks suspicious, it probably is.
  • Use the staging area to limit the number of responders. Don’t position responders and resources in one location. Consider multiple staging areas according to the number of resources responding and your span of control.
  • Law enforcement should immediately disperse any crowds and establish an outer security perimeter.
  • Avoid entering blast areas (the hot zone) unless it is necessary to save lives—and only when it is possible.
  • Always be aware of secondary devices!

APPROACHING THE SCENE

  • Rapidly implement the incident command system and its necessary components (unified command, safety officer, for example).
  • Establish hazard control zones around the incident (hot, warm, and cold). The blast site is the hot zone.
  • Consider assigning someone as a lookout or an observer to watch the scene from a vantage point for any additional threats or considerations.
  • Always have an open escape route for leaving the scene quickly, if it becomes necessary.
  • All responders should wear all available personal protective equipment.
  • Trained bomb technicians and explosive canines should search for secondary explosive devices during and after the response.
  • Notify appropriate agencies—fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squads, emergency management, and hospitals—as soon as possible if there is a report of an incident or a possible incident.
  • Be very cautious of any items or activities that arouse your curiosity!

POST-BLAST RESPONSE OPERATIONS

  • An explosives incident has the potential for a large number of victims with very traumatic injuries.
  • Rapidly coordinate with law enforcement to prioritize force protection resources around the areas of critical operations and the scene.
  • You may have to search beyond the immediate blast scene for victims who are not able to call for help, especially in a dense urban environment, where persons in upper stories of buildings are injured/affected directly by the attack or the elderly may be suffering from a health condition.
  • Some seriously injured victims may have no visible wounds, and some victims may be beyond help.
  • Quickly remove victims from the area, and render aid in a secure location. Conduct triage outside the hazard area. Use skeds, litters, or backboards.
  • EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points, and field treatment areas for minor injuries.
  • Implement local mass-casualty/mass-fatality procedures as soon as possible.
  • Triage twice—once at the blast scene and again at the hospital.
  • Address biohazard issues rapidly, as these scenes can have multiple traumatic injuries in one small location. Decontamination may be an option. This can be an assignment for hazardous materials teams.
  • Expect numerous types of traumatic injuries, blast pressure or internal injuries, burns, and shrapnel.
  • Immediately monitor for other hazards such as chemical agents, gases, or radioactive materials. This can be an assignment for hazardous materials teams.
  • Be aware of secondary hazards such as unstable structures, damaged utilities, hanging debris, void spaces, falling pieces of broken windows, and other physical hazards.
  • If vehicle or structural fires are involved, firefighters should rapidly knock down the fire while preserving evidence, when possible. Life safety is imperative.
  • The IC must decide whether fire operations should be offensive or defensive.
  • Consider the need for other specialized assets such as urban search and rescue, hazardous materials, and incident management teams.
  • Consider secondary hazards such as electrical lines, gas lines, and disrupted water mains that can impact the incident.
  • Be aware of the possibility of secondary devices and attacks. This type of event has targeted responders in the past.

CRIME SCENE CONSIDERATIONS

  • Establish as large a crime scene perimeter as possible. As a rule of thumb, extend the perimeter 50 percent from the farthest piece of located evidence.
  • Ensure that responders preserve possible evidence for subsequent criminal and forensic investigations.
  • Plan on an intensive media response; appoint a public information officer as soon as possible.
  • Family and friends may converge on the scene; consider establishing a Family Assistance Center.
  • After disconnecting utilities, lighting of the scene is necessary to enhance the evacuation of casualties and for law enforcement’s post-incident investigation.
  • Firefighters should not conduct overhaul and cleanup operations until the investigative authority has authorized such activities.
  • Immediately notify local, state, and federal resources.
  • Plan on an extensive, multiday crime scene investigation.
  • Do not attempt to approach, move, handle, or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED. That is a job for specially trained personnel.

TRAINING EFFORTS

Properly training all response personnel in your agency is the first step in preparing to mitigate an IED incident. The training must include having a clear idea of your action plan before an incident occurs. An excellent training resource for first responders is the Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings (IRTB) course in Soccoro, New Mexico, funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This course covers planning for and responding to IED or terrorist events. Students will witness live explosive events ranging from a small pipe bomb to a large car bomb and will be trained to provide awareness-level training for their agencies. Additional information on the course is at www.emrtc.nmt.edu/.

•••

The safety of all responders is paramount during these types of events. Remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. Unfortunately, the likelihood that emergency responders will someday be called to respond to a criminal or terrorist incident involving explosive devices appears to be higher than ever. It is also important to recognize that domestic and international terrorists and criminals are constantly improving their methods and are looking for more efficient and lethal tactics.

Responders must understand the tactics and weapons terrorists and criminals may use against targets within the United States. Continuous responder training is important to this effort. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the greater the chance that they will be able to effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. If a major IED incident occurs in the United States, trained and educated first responders can help lessen the impact with a safe and effective response.

Endnote

1. For additional information on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) preincident response, planning, and identification, see “Surviving the IED Response,” Fire Engineering, June 2007.

AUGUST VERNON, an assistant coordinator for a county Office of Emergency Management, returned to this position after serving a year in Iraq as a security contractor. He has been employed in emergency management for more than seven years and has also served as a member of the fire service, a fire service instructor, and a U.S. Army CBRN operations specialist. He conducts public safety training at the local, regional, state, and federal levels and has authored more than 20 nationally published articles. He is the author of First Responders Critical Incident Field Guide (Red Hat Publishing).

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