IED Facts for Emergency Responders

On the evening of Friday, Dec. 12, 2008, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated inside the West Coast Bank in Woodburn, Ore. Two police officers, including one bomb technician, were killed in the explosion, and two others were injured–one critically. This was only a month after the four-day siege in Mumbai that began on Nov. 26, 2008, in which seven IEDs were employed, targeting responders and the public.

EMS providers will encounter many challenges during their careers, including suspicious packages, bomb threats and IEDs. Public safety agencies must learn to work together to deter explosive attacks from occurring in their jurisdictions and safely respond in the event an attack occurs. Understanding some basic information, such as indicators and tactics, may help first responders prevent the initial attack and protect the public from secondary attacks.

Terrorism Facts & ID’ing IEDs
Many domestic and international groups pose serious threats to our daily operations. They’re willing and able to design and use IEDs against the public and emergency responders. Hate groups and extremists are active in all 50 U.S. states. Whether in the U.S. or Middle East, most IEDs are built from readily available commercial and household chemicals and materials. Don’t assume an attack here would be similar to those in the Middle East. Domestic attacks could easily take different forms, or “copy cats” could adopt these methods for their own motives.
IEDs are designed to defeat a specific target or type of target, often emergency responders, and as terrorists become more sophisticated, IEDs generally become more difficult to detect and protect against.

An IED can be discovered during a terrorist or criminal explosives incident response, or it can be discovered when conducting routine response activities. They can be concealed or look like ordinary items. Responders should be extremely cautious of any items that arouse curiosity, remember that the exterior inspection of a suspected device doesn’t ensure its safety, and be aware of and suspicious of the following:

>> Unusual devices or containers with electronic components, such as wires, circuit boards, cellular phones, antennas and other attached or exposed items;
>> Devices containing quantities of fuses, fireworks, match heads, black powder, smokeless powder, incendiary materials or other unusual materials or liquids;
>> Materials placed in devices or packages, such as nails, bolts, drill bits or marbles, that could be used for shrapnel; or
>> Ordnance, such as blasting caps, detcord, military explosives, commercial explosives or grenades.

IED Incident Planning
Emergency responders are more likely to encounter homemade explosives than military weapons in their day-to-day response activities and will be the first line of defense if these deadly weapons are involved in an incident. Planning and interagency cooperation for any IED or critical incident should be paramount to ensure their safety. This includes having a clear idea of your agency’s plan of action for an incident–before the incident occurs.

An agency’s first step in preparation should be a review of existing guidelines and procedures for these types of events. Every jurisdiction, big or small, should have a multi-agency, multi-hazard planning group or terrorism task force (TTF). As with any multi-hazard assessment and planning process, it’s a good idea to do a multi-agency exercise (tabletop or functional) that brings all the key agencies together to rehearse the plan once it’s been completed.

The second step in preparation is to provide proper awareness training to all response personnel. This should include, at a minimum, generating an awareness of the hazards associated with IEDs and the proper steps for the responder to take upon discovery of an item or when responding to an incident. If there’s a local bomb squad or hazardous devices unit in your area, ask them for assistance with your training and planning. Most bomb technicians will be glad to provide your agency with training on their procedures and equipment because they’ll require your support during an incident. Responders should understand their roles and responsibilities in supporting bomb squads during these incidents, such as knowing how to safely treat an injured bomb tech and remove the bomb tech’s suit and equipment if they’re injured.

Another excellent training resource for first responders is the Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings (IRTB) course in Soccoro, N.M., funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This course gives first responders information regarding planning for and responding to IED or terrorist events. Students witness live explosive events, ranging from a small pipe bomb to a large car bomb detonation. The course is open to fire, EMS, law enforcement and emergency management agencies. The course also allows students to return to their respective agency and provide awareness-level training. For additional information, visit

Emergency dispatch centers should have guidelines for dispatching first responders to a suspected or confirmed IED incident. Words such as “bombs” 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 via cell phones. In the event of an actual detonation with injuries, time becomes critical, because there will be an overriding need for a rapid, coordinated response.

Response & Provider Safety
When called to the scene of a known or suspected IED, emergency responders should remain in the staging area until the scene is secured by law enforcement when possible. EMS agencies may also find they’re being requested to assist or “stand by” during law enforcement “special operations,” such as when tactical teams or bomb squads respond to suspicious persons, packages or devices. Unless otherwise specified, initial response should be minimal to allow for better command and control of resources. 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 suspicious device is taking place, fire and EMS personnel must be briefed on their roles and staged in a safe area where they’ll be out of harm’s way if a device detonates. If time allows, develop a plan for if a device detonates.

For these types of responses, and for the emergency responder who comes across a suspicious device/package during routine activities, the key is to not rush in. If they encounter a suspected explosive at a scene, providers should immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. Don’t use your radio, cell phone or mobile data terminal (MDT) until you’re at a safe distance (300-feet minimum) from the device in question. All appropriate agencies–fire, EMS, law enforcement, bomb squad, emergency management office and hospitals–should be notified as soon as possible if there’s a report of an incident or possible incident. All responders must resist temptation to look at or take pictures of a confirmed or even suspected IED.

If you find yourself next to a possible IED, take these steps:

>> Call out to personnel to stop moving;
>> Stop and look around for any other devices or suspicious items;
>> Don’t touch or move anything;
>> Don’t operate light or power switches;
>> Keep other responders from coming over to look or take photos;
>> Retrace your steps to move out of the area the same way you entered;
>> Conduct personal accountability;
>> Isolate and secure the area; and
>> Call and wait for the local or state bomb squad.

When a device or suspected device is encountered, responders need to employ “tactical” thinking. This means, first and foremost, being cautious for any suspicious items and maintaining situational awareness. Responders should get all the dispatch information they can, considering all routes into the emergency site and surveying the scene for an extra moment. Be alert for traps. Immediate interagency cooperation is essential. Clear communications are necessary for effective operations. Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus. Use of tactical medics in supporting law enforcement operations is encouraged.

The response to an IED, unexploded ordnance (UXO) or booby trap/anti-personnel device (APD) is similar to a hazardous materials response. Plan to use your “zones of control” to assist in your response efforts. Establish a:

>> 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).

Look for unusual objects and people who seem out of place for the location or time of the call. Trust your instincts: If it looks suspicious, it probably is. Take a moment to do a 360-degree survey, scanning the area using binoculars, spotting scopes or vehicle-mounted cameras if possible. Keep open an escape route for making a quick exit from the scene if necessary. Use staging areas to limit the number of responders on scene. Don’t stack up responders and resources in one location. Always be aware of the possibility of secondary devices.

Clear and control the area of operation as you would a hazmat event. Move people away from the incident or suspicious item. Never move the item for any reason, not even to get it away from people. Don’t attempt to approach, move, handle or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED; this is a job for specially trained personnel.

Tactical medics may be the only staff allowed in the “warm” and “hot” zones to provide care. EMS providers may need to “scoop and run” and “load and go” from the incident. Casualty collection points may be established in safe areas inside or outside a location. EMS may need to implement other disaster procedures, such as use of triage tags, casualty collection points and field treatment areas for minor injuries.

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. Search beyond the immediate scene for victims unable to call for help; this may be especially necessary in a dense urban environment, where persons injured in upper stories of buildings might be affected (directly by the attack or elderly suffering a health condition).
Triage should be conducted at least twice–once at the blast scene and again at the hospital. Biohazard issues will need to be rapidly addressed, as these scenes can have multiple traumatic injuries in one small location. Decontamination may be an option.

If an actual explosive device is involved, it’s always advisable to prepare for the presence of a secondary device. Responders must be aware of their surroundings and search the critical areas, such as where the command post and staging will be located. In the Middle and Far East, secondary devices have been left for first responders in multiple incidents. In the U.S., there have been several cases of secondary devices being planted. For example, Atlanta Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph planted several secondary devices during his attacks.

The information presented in this article is intended to help public safety agencies with their planning and training efforts as well as to spur further discussion and planning within agencies. Remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. Each community should have a plan in place to address scenarios involving suspected IEDs. If a major IED incident occurs in the U.S., trained and educated first responders can help lessen the impact with a safe and effective response.

The more you prepare, the better equipped you’ll be to respond to and effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. JEMS

Author’s Note: 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 a county office of Emergency Management. He recently completed a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations involved in several IED and combative engagements. Vernon teaches courses in incident management, emergency management, hazmat operations, terrorism/WMD planning-response and OPSEC for public safety. Contact him at

This article originally appeared in May 2010 JEMS as Explosvie Devices: What every responder should know about IEDs.

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