Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices: Planning and Response


If your agency receives a report about a possible “car bombing” incident or suspected vehicle bomb, what is the safest way to respond? How would your agency respond to this type of incident? Has your community prepared or trained for this situation?

There has been no major vehicle-borne improvised explosives device (VBIED) attack in the United States for several years. However, in the interest of public safety and current international trends, it is prudent to study these incidents and develop effective public safety guidelines. VBIEDs can be discovered during a terrorist or criminal explosives response or when conducting normal, routine activities. First responders will be the community’s first line of defense if these deadly weapons are involved in an incident. The VBIEDs will be designed to be concealed or blend in as an ordinary vehicle.

(1) VBIED explosion: before and [Photos by Trent Walker, Special Operations Division, Greensboro (NC) Police Department.]
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Recent history has shown that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and VBIEDs are often the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Recent attacks in Iraq combining the use of explosives and chlorine have also 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 locations, including the United States. The explosives component of a VBIED can be anything from homemade improvised explosives to sophisticated military ordnance, but civilian first responders are more likely to encounter IEDs than military weapons in their day-to-day response activities.

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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. In July 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) distributed an Information Bulletin to all U.S. state, federal, and local law enforcement agencies that addressed the threat of VBIEDs. At that time, the Bulletin stated that there is no specific or credible intelligence indicating that terrorist organizations intend to use VBIEDs against U.S homeland targets. However, the growing use and frequency of lethal VBIED incidents overseas is cause for continuing monitoring and concern. Every week on the nightly news, we see the scenes of chaos and destruction caused by car bombings around the globe. This article outlines steps that fire, EMS, and other first responders can take to prepare for the growing threat of a potential VBIED bombing.


Two notable VBIED events that have occurred in the United States were the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building. In each case, the explosive device was assembled from commercially available materials, and a rental truck was used to deliver the device to the scene.

(3) Other scenarios of VBIED incidents you might face.
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VBIEDs constitute one of the largest hazards in Iraq and Afghanistan that Coalition forces have faced. It is important to take the valuable and sometimes-fatal lessons learned in these terrorist attacks and apply them to training and planning for terrorist events at home. VBIEDs have been proven a favorite and effective mode for terrorists to successfully penetrate a target and create injuries and chaos. Enemy forces are now using VBIEDs as one of the preferred methods of attack on Coalition forces, as this allows the attacker a standoff capability to initiate an attack, employ large amounts of explosives, cause maximum loss of life, and then quickly escape the area.

(4) Other scenarios of VBIED incidents you might face.
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In the Middle East and Far East, most VBIEDs are unique, because the builders must improvise with the vehicles and materials at hand. VBIEDs are also usually designed to defeat a specific target or type of target, so they will generally become difficult to detect and protect against as they become more sophisticated. They have been employed against U.S. forces by several means, including the following:

  • Using locally purchased, wireless, battery-powered doorbell devices, car alarms, cordless phones, or cell phones to remotely initiate VBIEDs and other IEDs.
  • Using speaker and similar type of locally purchased wiring to connect the explosives.
  • Using decoy devices (bait devices or vehicles) out in the open to slow or stop U.S. forces in the “kill” zones.
  • Using suicide bombers to guide a vehicle into a target.

VBIEDs have used increasingly larger amounts of explosives—from 100 pounds to well over 1,000 pounds. The VBIEDs seen in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have included mortar rounds, artillery rounds, rocket warheads, and improvised explosives. Additional materials such as shrapnel, flammables, white phosphorus, and chlorine have been added to cause additional death and injury.

VBIEDs have come in all shapes, sizes, makes, models, and colors of vehicles, ranging from the small, simple two-door passenger car to the large cement or sewage truck. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there have even been instances of fire trucks, ambulances, trailer-mounted generators, and donkey-drawn carts used to attack Coalition forces.


When responding to an unexploded or suspected VBIED incident, responders must become more “tactical” in their thinking. Predetonation response will take place before there is an explosion. If there is a report of a possible VBIED, little time may be available for intervention. Situational awareness will be critical. Some key points include the following:

  • Get all the dispatch information you can by pager, cell phone, or mobile data terminal (MDT).
  • 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. Do not discuss issues over the radio, if possible.
  • Use staging areas to limit the number of responders. Don’t stack up responders and resources in one location.
  • Scan the areas where you are parking and staging. Minimum stand-off distance should be 1,500 to 1,750 feet from the vehicle.
  • Immediately implement and use the incident command system (ICS) and unified command.
  • Always be aware of secondary devices and vehicles. Do not use two-way radios, cell phones, or MDTs within 1,500 to 1,750 feet of the vehicle or suspected vehicle, if possible.
  • Be prepared to monitor for other hazards such as chemical agents, gases, and radioactive materials.

Scan the area and vehicle using binoculars, spotting scopes, or vehicle-mounted cameras. Clear and control the area of operation as you would a hazmat event. Move people away from the suspicious item or vehicle. Never move the item away from people.

Be very cautious of any vehicles or items that arouse your curiosity. Never approach a suspicious vehicle once an indicator of possible VBIED has been given. Immediately call for assistance, including bomb squad assets. Bomb squad personnel or robots should be the first to approach a VBIED or suspected VBIED.


Post-detonation response will take place after an explosion has occurred. A VBIED attack has the overwhelming potential for a large number of victims and fatalities. Expect a chaotic situation.

General Response Considerations

  • First responders must proceed with extreme caution for their and the public’s safety.
  • Standard guidelines against the use of cell phones and radios may not be applicable. There will be an overriding need for a rapid, coordinated response.
  • Law enforcement should immediately disperse any crowds.
  • Trained bomb technicians should search for secondary explosive devices on loitering individuals and in suspicious packages, trash receptacles, or parked vehicles during and after the response phase.
  • Be aware of the possibility of the presence of secondary devices in the area. This type of event has targeted responders.
  • Establish as large a crime-scene perimeter as possible.
  • If a vehicle or structural fire is involved, conduct a rapid knockdown while considering evidence.

Incident Management

  • Rapidly establish a unified command post and staging areas outside of the hazard area. Start building the ICS.
  • Supervisors must conduct a rapid scene size-up or “windshield survey.”
  • Immediately monitor for other hazards such as chemical agents, gases, and radioactive materials.
  • Leave emergency vehicles that are/were inside the blast/crime scene in place until the bomb squad can determine if they are safe to move and that moving them will not destroy key evidence.
  • Plan on an intensive media response.
  • Immediately notify local, state, and federal resources.
  • Plan on an extensive, multiday crime scene investigation.
  • Always remember that this will be a very fluid, dynamic situation. Responders have been killed at these types of incidents.

Medical Operations

  • Implement local mass-casualty/mass-fatality procedures.
  • Expect numerous types of traumatic injuries resulting from blast pressure, burns, and shrapnel.
  • Quickly remove victims from the area, and render aid in a secure location. Conduct triage outside the hazard area. Use litters, blankets, or backboards. Triage will be conducted at least twice—once at the blast scene and again at the hospital.
  • Biohazard issues will need to be addressed rapidly, as these scenes can have multiple traumatic injuries in one small location. Decontamination may be an option.


A first responder who comes across a suspicious vehicle during routine activities should immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. Do not use your radio, cell phone, or MDT until you are a safe distance from the device or vehicle. If you find yourself next to a suspected VBIED, take these steps:

  • Call out to other personnel that you have found something (wires, devices, containers, etc.).
  • Do not touch or move anything.
  • Do not open or close the doors, hood, or trunk.
  • If inside the vehicle, exit the same way you entered.
  • Move yourself, other responders, and the public out of the area as quickly as possible.

If you discover an exploded or unexploded VBIED, you have also discovered a crime scene, and it must be treated as such. Several important decisions must be made at the scene. An effective incident command and unified command organization are two of the best tools agencies can use to deal with these types of events.

On being notified of an actual or suspected IED, the incident commander should implement the U.S. Military’s “4 Cs Rule”: Confirm with witnesses from a safe distance that there is a device. Clear the area. Cordon off the location. Control all entry and exit points. (Reminder: Once the vehicle has been identified as a possible VBIED, no one should approach the vehicle again.)

The response to a VBIED is similar to that of a hazardous materials response. Use your “zones of control”:

  • Hot zone: where the device or vehicle is located; significant damage will occur if the device explodes.
  • Warm zone: where the large perimeter area will be established.
  • Cold zone: location of command post and staging.

Notify all appropriate agencies (e.g., fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squad, emergency management agency, and others as needed) as soon as possible once a suspected or actual vehicle is identified or an attack takes place. As noted above, scenes involving VBIEDs will be fluid, dynamic situations. Responders have been killed at these types of events. Command officers must be prepared to relocate or evacuate emergency response personnel and the incident command post at any moment.

According to the U.S Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the minimum safe evacuation distance for a small compact sedan loaded with up to 500 pounds of explosives is 1,500 feet. Larger vehicles can require up to 6,000 or 7,000 feet for the minimum safe evacuation distance. In metropolitan areas, dozens or even hundreds of people may be within that range, and they will need to be quickly and safely evacuated from the hot zone to the cold zone and beyond.


Be very cautious of any vehicles that arouse your curiosity. Indicators can include any combination of the following:

  • A vehicle parked suspiciously for a prolonged time in a central or strategic location.
  • The vehicle or vehicle’s rear appears to be weighted down.
  • The vehicle has stolen, nonmatching plates or no plates at all.
  • Wires, bundles, circuit boards, electronic components, unusual liquid containers, devices or materials are visible in the vehicle. Ordnance such as blasting caps, detonation cord, military explosives, commercial explosives, grenades, or artillery is visible.
  • Unknown liquids or materials leaking under the vehicle.
  • Unusual attachments or bodywork.

First responders should not attempt to approach, move, handle, or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED or VBIED; this is a job for the bomb squad and hazardous device units.


Several of the public safety agencies involved in the response to the July 7, 2005, suicide bombing attacks in central London, including the London Fire Brigade, had been training for large-scale terrorist attacks since 9/11 and stated that the training paid off during the July 7 response. The first step in your agency’s preparation is to provide proper training to all response personnel. If your agency has not clearly written out any VBIED guidelines or procedures, now is a good time to start. Preparation is the key to mitigating a VBIED incident; that includes having a clear idea of what your actions should be before the incident occurs. This should include at least an awareness of the hazards associated with IEDs and VBIEDs 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 efforts. Most bomb squads will be glad to provide your agency with training on its procedures and equipment, since it may require your support during an incident.

Other excellent training resources for first responders are the Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings and Initial Response to Suicide Bombing courses at New Mexico Tech in Soccoro. Both courses are funded through the DHS, and these awareness- and operations-level courses can be presented locally. Both courses provide first responders information on planning for and responding to IED, VBIED, and other terrorist events involving explosives. As part of the Socorro deliveries, students will witness live explosive events ranging from a small pipe bomb to a large car bomb. The courses also allow students to return to their respective agencies and provide awareness-level training. For additional information, see


Unfortunately, the likelihood that emergency responders will someday be called to respond to a criminal incident involving explosive devices is higher than ever before. It is also important to recognize that domestic and international terrorists are constantly improving their methods and are looking for more efficient tactics.

Safety is paramount for all responders during these types of events. Remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. It is impossible to cover all the issues that will need to be addressed during a pre- or post-VBIED incident. Each community should have some type of plan in place to address these types of events.

It is important that responders understand the tactics and weapons terrorists 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. The community has entrusted us with their safety, So, let us 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 Office of Emergency Management, North Carolina. He returned in 2005 to his position at emergency management after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range heavy convoy security operations involved in several IED and combative engagements. Vernon has been a member of emergency management since 2000, a member of the fire service since 1990, and a fire service instructor. He also served in the U.S. Army as a CBRN operations specialist. He teaches courses in incident management, OPSEC for public safety, hazmat operations and terrorism/WMD response and conducts public safety training at the local, state, and federal levels. He has been published in several national publications. He is the author of the upcoming book First Responders Critical Incident Field Guide (Red Hat Publishing).

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