Strategies for Surviving the IED Response

There have been no major improvised explosives devices (IED) attacks in the United States for several years. However, in the interest of public safety and in view of current international trends, it is prudent to study these incidents and develop effective public safety guidelines. Explosives are the number one choice of terrorists around the globe. Public safety agencies at all levels must learn to work together to deter IED attacks in their jurisdictions and to safely respond if an attack occurs. Understanding some basic information such as indicators and tactics may help first responders to prevent the initial attack and protect the public from secondary attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) annual report on terrorism shows that the majority of domestic terrorism incidents in the United States involve explosives.


It is important that we take the valuable-and sometimes fatal-lessons learned in Iraq/Afghanistan and incorporate them into our training and plans for critical incidents at home. IEDs, which pose the greatest hazards for our forces in Iraq, are the preferred attack weapons. They give the attacker a standoff capability for initiating an attack and quickly escaping from the area.

Some 40 to 60 percent of attacks in Iraq begin with an IED; more than 70 percent of injuries and fatalities to U.S. troops are caused by these explosives attacks. In Iraq and Afghanistan, most IEDs are unique, because the builders must improvise with the materials at hand. First responders are more likely to encounter homemade explosives and IEDs than military weapons in their day-to-day response activities. IEDs are also designed to defeat a specific target or type of target. As they become more sophisticated, they generally become more difficult to detect and protect against.

We must be aware that many domestic and international groups and individuals pose serious threats to our daily operations. The enemy is willing and able to design and use IEDs against the public and first responders. Hate groups and extremists are also active throughout the United States.

Also, most of these devices used in the Middle East, the Far East, and the United States are built from readily available commercial and household chemicals and materials. Do not assume that the type of attacks seen around the world and in the Middle East will be the same as those launched in the United States. They could easily take different forms, or “copycats” could adopt these methods for their own motives.


When responding to an actual or possible IED event, you must become more “tactical” in your thinking. Be very cautious of any items that arouse your curiosity. When responding, get all the dispatch information you can. Check to see if there have been any threats in your area or if there are any scheduled planned events that will be attended by large numbers of people. Have intelligence bulletins referenced the location? Look at the routes into the emergency site. Survey the scene for an extra moment. 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.

Take a moment to do a 360° survey. Keep open an escape route for making a quick exit from the scene if necessary. Look at parking and staging areas. Do not stack up resources. Always be aware of the possibility of secondary devices. Remember that responders are the primary targets in explosives attacks.

Do not attempt to move, handle, or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED; this is a job for specially trained personnel.


IEDs can be discovered during a terrorist or criminal explosives incident response or when conducting routine response activities or investigations. They can be designed to be concealed or look like ordinary items. As noted, be very cautious of any items that arouse your curiosity. Because the exterior of a package containing a suspected device doesn’t reveal anything suspicious does not mean the package is safe. When remotely surveying a suspected IED, think about how it works: Does it need an explosive payload, a power source (battery), and an initiator (blasting cap)? Ask yourself if the item/package you are looking at can incorporate these three things.





(1-3) An IED can be made up of different materials and components. Responders need to be cautious of any suspicious items. (Photos by author.)

The device/container may have electronic components such as wires, circuit boards, cellular phones, antennas, and other items attached or exposed. They could also contain fuses, fireworks, match heads, black powder, smokeless powder, incendiary materials, and other unusual materials or liquids. Materials (nails, bolts, drill bits, marbles, for example) could be attached to the item and function as shrapnel. Ordnance such as blasting caps, detonating cord, military explosives, commercial explosives, or grenades may also be present. Even items such as old grenades and artillery simulators have been converted to IEDs. Remember, an IED can look like anything.


During your responses, you or your agency may also be asked to assist or “stand by” at a law enforcement “call out” or “special operation” such as the tactical team’s or bomb squad’s response to a call for a suspicious person, package, or device. Unless otherwise specified, initially send a small response, to ensure better command and control of resources and better flow of information. The supervising fire/EMS officer should report to the law enforcement incident commander for an exchange of details/information. If a bomb squad operation or search for a suspicious device is underway, fire and EMS personnel must be briefed on their roles and be staged in a safe area out of harm’s way should a device detonate. If time allows, have a plan in place should a device go off. Do not rush in if there is an explosion.


Information on the construction and deployment of IEDs is readily available to the public. Many methods of explosives attacks are described in the Al Qaeda and Jihad manuals. Several U.S. specialty publishers produce books that show how to build devices using improvised materials and commercial products. Military manuals can be purchased at military surplus stores and yard sales. All these resources are also easily found on the Internet.





(4-6) A pipe bomb placed in a glove box, before and after. [Photos by Trent Walker, Greensboro (NC) Police Department Special Operations Division.]



If you should come across a suspicious device/package during routine activities, immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. Do not use your radio or cell phone until you are a safe distance (300 feet minimum) from the device. If you find yourself next to a possible IED, take these steps:

  • Call out to other personnel to stop moving.
  • Stop and look around for any other devices or wires.
  • Do not touch or move anything.
  • Do not operate light or power switches.
  • Keep other responders from coming over to look.
  • Move out of the area the same way you entered by retracing your steps.
  • Conduct a personal accountability report.
  • Isolate and secure the area.
  • Call and wait for the local or state bomb squad.


Implement the incident management system for these events. On receipt of notifications of an actual or suspected IED, the incident commander should consider implementing the military “5 Cs Rule”: Confirm there is a device. Clear the area. Cordon off the location. Control all entry and exit points. Check the immediate area for secondary devices or hazards.

The response to an IED, unexploded ordnance (UXO), or antipersonnel device (APD) or booby trap is similar to that for a hazardous materials response. Use your “zones of control” to assist in your response efforts: hot zone (where the device is located), warm zone (where the perimeter will be established), and cold zone (secured location of unified command post and staging).

Notify all appropriate agencies (fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squad, emergency management office, and hospitals) as soon as possible if there is a report of an incident or possible incident. First responders must resist the temptation to look at or take pictures of a confirmed or suspected IED.


If an actual explosives device is involved, be prepared for the presence of a secondary device. Be aware of your surroundings, and search the critical areas such as the command post and staging sites. In the Middle East and Far East, there have been multiple incidents in which secondary devices were left for first responders. In the United States, there have been several cases in which secondary devices were planted. Eric Rudolph, who conducted several bombings in the southeastern United States, including the Atlanta Olympics attack, planted several secondary devices during his attacks. In the 1999 Columbine High School incident, where two students attacked fellow students with firearms and explosives, several devices were placed in the parking lots and near the typical emergency services staging areas. These two attackers in Littleton, Colorado, had watched the fire department’s responses to fire alarms at the school in the past and planted IEDs in the locations in which the responders managed and conducted their response operations. Stay alert!


The handling of IEDs by inexperienced individuals can result in ignition and possible injury or death. Unusual containers or configurations of devices and unknown liquids or materials could indicate a possible incendiary device. Petroleum-based products used in incendiary devices may be detected by their odors. If an ignition occurs, initiate actions appropriate to your training and the situation (call for additional help, isolate the area, extinguish any fire, and the like). Additionally, when it is suspected that an incendiary device started a fire, it is critical to properly handle potential evidence to preserve the crime scene.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program ( conducts investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries. For additional information, see NIOSH’s report FACE-F2004-11, which lists the following recommendations for fire departments that respond to scenes of violence. Some of this information could be applied to an actual or suspected IED incident or other acts of violence:

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Develop integrated emergency communication systems that include the ability to directly relay real-time information among the caller, dispatch, and all responding emergency personnel.
  • Provide body armor or bullet-resistant personal protective equipment; train with it, and consistently enforce its use when responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Ensure all emergency response personnel have the capability for continuous radio contact, and consider providing portable communication equipment that has integrated hands-free capabilities.
  • Consider requiring emergency dispatch centers to incorporate the ability to archive location, or individual, historical data and provide pertinent information to responding fire and emergency medical services personnel.
  • Develop coordinated response guidelines for violent situations, and hold joint training sessions with law enforcement, mutual aid, and emergency response departments.


Combined devices have also been referred to as “chemical bombs” or “dirty bombs.” The recent attacks in Iraq combining the use of explosives and chlorine have highlighted the fact that terrorists are constantly seeking more effective methods of attack. Globally, terrorists are learning to adapt their tactics and techniques, and there is a good chance that these tactics will be seen in other locales. These types of devices could be assembled using a wide variety of hazardous materials. The IED component of a combined device can be anything from homemade backpack bombs to sophisticated military ordnance, but nonmilitary first responders are more likely to encounter IEDs than military weapons in their day-to-day response activities.


Emergency dispatch centers should have guidelines in place for dispatching first responders to a suspected IED incident. Words such as “bombs” or “bomb threats” or “IEDs” should not be used over the radio system-remember, the media and public are listening.

Specifics of a call should be given over a vehicle computer text system, text pagers, or cell phones. If there is an actual detonation with injuries, time becomes critical and there will be an overriding need for a rapid, coordinated response. In the United States, IED detonations have also been reported as other types of emergencies, including medical calls with burns or trauma, “man-down” calls, structure or rubbish fires, and explosions or “loud booms.” So stay alert to any unusual situation or response.


The first step in your preparation is to provide proper training to all response personnel. If your agency has not clearly written out any IED, bomb threat, and suspicious package guidelines or procedures, now is a good time to start that process. Preparation is the key to mitigating an IED incident; that includes having a clear idea of what your actions should be before the incident occurs. This should at least include an awareness of the hazards associated with IEDs and the proper steps for responders to take.

If there is a local bomb squad or hazardous devices unit in your area, ask for its assistance with your training and planning. Most bomb technicians will be glad to provide your agency with training on their procedures and equipment, since they may require your support during an incident.

Another 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 gives first responders information on planning for and responding to IED or other terrorist events. Students will witness live-explosive events ranging from a small pipe bomb to a large car bomb. The course also allows students to return to their respective agencies and provide awareness-level training. For additional information, see


The world has changed drastically and will continue to do so. The information presented here is intended to help public safety agencies with their planning and training efforts. 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. The community has entrusted us with their safety, so we must prepare now.

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.

AUGUST VERNON is an assistant coordinator for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management. He returned to this position in 2005, after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations involved in several improvised explosives devices (IEDs) and combative engagements. He has been a member of emergency management since 2000 and of the fire service since 1990. Vernon served in the U.S. Army as a nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) operations specialist. He teaches courses in IED response, incident management, OPSEC for public safety, hazmat operations, and terrorism/WMD response. He has been published in several national publications.

No posts to display