Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction Refresher

By Nick J. Salameh

Today, fire departments are no longer responsible for just fire and EMS. Firefighters are responsible for being knowledgeable about and proficient in a very wide variety of topics. Having become “all hazards” agencies, first responders are expected to mitigate nearly every situation that may be thrown at us. At times, it can be overwhelming trying to keep pace with training for every kind of emergency situation. However, the training is essential to stay ahead of growing threats. Refresher training is a good way to stay focused on low-frequency/high-risk events and to maintain knowledge and proficiency, and this includes incidents involving terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in the furtherance of political or social objectives. Terrorism is a psychological act conducted for its impact on an audience. Terrorism is calculated and leads to:

  • Mass destruction
  • Mass disruption
  • Mass casualty
  • Lasting psychological effects

When it comes to terrorism, it is not a question of if, but when. We are all vulnerable to terrorism, some more than others. Knowledge, which will help you live with fear, not in fear, is the best defense against terrorism.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) 

B-Biological   C-Chemical

N-Nuclear B-Biological

I-Incendiary   Or   R-Radiological

C-Chemical N-Nuclear

E-Explosive   E-Explosive




Response to Critical Incidents


Terrorism, Past and Present

The threat has always been there and will always be there. Terrorism has been ongoing for centuries. We are used to seeing terrorism strike more frequently in other countries, but the United States is not immune. Incidents like the Olympic Park and Oklahoma City bombings; the initial bomb attack on the World Trade Center in February of 1993; the subsequent September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and the Northern Virginia Snipers bring the reality of terrorism closer to home. In recent years, we have seen active shooter massacres and innocent citizens mowed down with vehicles with the intent to kill, injure, and to create fear and disruption.

International Terrorism

This involves groups or individuals whose terrorist activities are foreign based and/or directed by countries or groups outside the U.S. or whose activities transcend national boundaries.

Domestic Terrorism

This is terrorism committed against the U.S. by individuals or groups whose terrorist activities are directed at elements of our government or population without foreign direction.

The Terrorist Is a Criminal

The terrorist’s main goal is to create mass casualties, but mass destruction, mass disruption, and mass fear inherently follow. The terrorist is motivated by political, religious or ideological objectives. They know what they are doing. Their selection of a target is planned and rational. Terrorist violence is neither spontaneous nor random. Unlike war, which is subject to rules of international law, terrorists recognize no rules. No person, place, or object of value is immune from terrorist attack. Terrorists are convinced their actions are justified by a higher law. Their pride is to die for their cause and to kill is as strong as the soldier’s pride to die for his or her cause.

Hard and Soft Targets of Terrorism include:

  • Federal facilities, agencies, symbols
  • Critical facilities and infrastructure (public utilities, etc.)
  • Symbolic or historic locations
  • Transportation systems
  • High-profile events
  • Facilities of interest to terrorists’ cause
  • Venues housing large numbers of people
  • Vulnerable populations (children/elderly)
  • Schools, daycares, churches
  • Grocery/agricultural (food supplies)

Types of WMD

Nuclear/radiological involve the release of radiological materials or a nuclear detonation.

These acts are very difficult to carry out. Heat/blast wave destruction and inhalation are the main concerns initially, followed by ingestion and absorption. There is likely a delay in officials’ realizing that nuclear material is involved (think dirty bomb), and these incidents may have short- and long-term effects.

Biological attacks involve infectious microbes or toxins used to produce illness or death in people, animals, or plants.

Many of these substances are difficult to acquire, maintain, manufacture, and aerosolize. They may be dispersed as aerosols or air born particles. They may produce delayed effects, which creates a delay in recognizing a biological attack. Some do not penetrate unbroken skin and do not evaporate. They may be undetectable by senses and difficult to detect in the field.

The substances may have a wide range of effects. They may be obtained from nature and may involve multiple routes of entry (being inhaled, injected, or ingested). Some may be destroyed by the environment and some are contagious.

Biological Agents

  • Bacteria
  • Anthrax
  • Plague
  • Viruses
  • Small Pox
  • Hemorrhagic fever (Ebola, Marburg)
  • Toxins
  • Botulinum (Botox)
  • Ricin

Chemical/Biological Warfare Agents

The military uses many types of biological and chemical agents for warfare. Chemical agents such as poisonous gases, liquids, or solids have toxic effects on people, animals, or plants, creating serious injuries or death.

  • Normally disseminated as an aerosol or gas
  • Present both a respiratory and skin contact hazard
  • May be detectable by the senses
  • Influenced by weather conditions
  • Symptoms measured in minutes-hours.
  • Multiple routes of entry (inhaled, ingested, eyes, injection, absorption)

Chemical Agents

Blister agents:

  • Sulfur mustard gas (HD): delayed reaction)
  • Nitrogen mustard gas (HN): delayed reaction
  • Lewisite (L) immediate reaction

All are heavier than air and can be absorbed through eyes and skin

Signs and symptoms of exposure:

  • Reddening of eyes/gritty irritation
  • Reddening of skin
  • Severe itching and burning of skin
  • Blisters with or without pain
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness/dry cough
  • Nausea/vomiting

Signs and symptoms may not present until two to 24 hours after exposure to Mustard agents

Choking agents affect respiratory system. They include:

  • Chlorine (CI)
  • Chloropicrin (PS)
  • Phosgene (CG)

All are heavier than air.

Signs and symptoms of exposure include:

  • Immediate irritation of eyes, nose, and throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Frothy secretions between two and 24 hours of exposure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pulmonary edema

Blood agents affect the transfer of oxygen between blood and cells. They include:

  • Hydrogen cyanide (AC): Lighter than air
  • Cyanogen chloride (CK): Heavier than air

Signs and symptoms of exposure include:

  • Headaches
  • Strong stimulated breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Convulsions
  • Apnea (stop breathing)

Nerve Agents, all heavier than air, can be absorbed through the eyes, lungs, and skin. They include:

  • Tabun (GA
  • Sarin (GB)
  • Soman (GD)
  • V-Agents (VX)

Incapacitating/riot control agents cause severe irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and cause some shortness of breath and coughing immediately after exposure. They are used as scare tactic and staged incidents.

  • Tear gas
  • Pepper spray
  • Other riot control agents

Signs and symptoms of chemical agent exposure:

P-Pinpoint Pupils


L-Lacrimation (tearing)




E-Emesis (vomiting)

M-Muscle twitching



Protests, Violence, Terrorism, and Firefighting

Preplanning for a Small-Town Terrorist Attack

An All-Hazards Approach to Terrorism

Terror Awareness Pays Off at Times Square Bomb Incident


Explosives involve the use of explosives to kill, destroy, and disseminate nuclear, biological or chemical agents. Explosives are usually a terrorist’s weapon of choice.

The materials readily available and they are generally easy to manufacture. They have effective results (mass casualty, mass destruction, mass disruption) and a vivid psychological impact.

Types of explosives include:

  • Pipe bombs
  • Vehicle bombs
  • Military munitions
  • Letter and package bombs
  • Satchel bombs
  • Suicide bombers

Injury Effects


  • Damaging pressure waves


  • Projectiles and fragmentation

Types of explosive scenarios:

  • Pre-detonation (identifying a suspicious package, vehicle, or person)
  • Post-detonation (explosion has occurred, and may involve nuclear, biological and chemical agents)


Incendiary incidents involve the use of flammable liquids or other materials capable of causing fire.

These acts are easily carried out and usually create immediate fire conditions. They are used in 20-25 percent of all bombing incidents, and fires are ignited with 75-percent reliability. Fewer than 5 percent are preceded by a threat

Types of incendiary devices include Molotov cocktails, flammable liquids, and chemical mixtures.

Decontamination Methods

Victims exposed to liquid agent should be decontaminated by removing all clothing and applying copious amounts of water. Double bag and isolate contaminated clothing.

Victims exposed to particulate matter should flush, strip, flush, and cover, followed by soap and water shower at earliest convenience. Double bag and isolate contaminated clothing.

Victims exposed to vapors should remove clothing in a clean environment, and soap and water shower at earliest convenience.

When large numbers of people have been contaminated and immediate decontamination is required, such as during a chemical attack, consider a decontamination corridor using fire apparatus (see Figure 1).

Figure 1, illustrated example of Emergency Mass Casualty Decontamination Corridor.

The decontamination corridor consists of a minimum of two engines positioned side by side with right-side pump panels facing each other, allowing a space of 15-20 feet between them. Fog nozzles should be attached to each of the pump panel discharges. Gated wyes can be used to maximize each discharge. Existing elbows on discharges should be rotated upward so the wide-narrow fog streams fill the space with water flow. An aerial fog stream is positioned above the corridor to apply an umbrella of water over the corridor to create a top flush. The goal of the decon corridor is to provide high volume water under low pressure. Usually, this can be achieved on hydrant pressure or with engine pumps at idle (approximately 50 psi). Contaminated victims walk or are assisted, as needed, through the corridor in order to completely flush off any bodily contaminants.

Decon corridors, like chemical decontamination, require clothing be removed prior to flushing victims, so it is important to provide as much modest discretion as reasonably possible, and to be able to provide foil blankets to maintain warmth and a personal privacy kit such as a Doff-It Kit to provide cover up as victims exit the corridor. Personal belongings should be staged in a control area prior to the decon corridor entrance to be later bagged and considered evidence as part of the law enforcement investigation.

Points to Remember

  • Remain calm.
  • Most nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) events create a respiratory problem for victims.
  • Believe a terrorist attack can and will happen in your own backyard. Expect no warnings.
  • Practice evacuation drills and know emergency response plans ahead of time.
  • Preplan and practice before something happens.
  • Explosives and incendiaries are usually weapon of choice for big kills.
  • Prepare for the worst!

Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are threats first responders must anticipate, prepare for, and practice periodically to remain proficient when an event occurs. Although many of the examples of WMD above are difficult to acquire and carry out, the tried and true methods like bombs and active shooter scenarios are, unfortunately, not complicated. Materials can often be easily acquired from sporting goods and hardware stores. Terrorists are patient and may wait years before executing a major event, but we must also be concerned with sleeper sells and the lone wolf terrorist who may strike at any time and without warning.

Keep practicing, keep building your knowledge, and keep preparing, because one day it could be your department that is dealing with a terrorist or WMD event.

NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, where he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is also a contributor to Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK).

No posts to display