Today’s first responder has had to adapt to an ever-changing threat that affects all U.S. citizens. The individual responder himself has to some extent become a human “tool box” that must be able to operate in many different venues. From apprehending a criminal to fighting a fire, to transporting sick or injured victims, first responders today must be able to carry out a multitude of tasks – at times, more or less simultaneously.

Many if not all of those tasks are inherently dangerous in themselves, and they may become much more dangerous within the foreseeable future. As American troops in Iraq have found out, there is an invisible enemy that, without warning, has already killed or wounded literally thousands of U.S. military personnel. That enemy is the improvised explosive device, better known as an IED.

IED bombings are one of the most challenging types of terrorist attack to prevent. Terrorist groups reap several advantages from such attacks, which require relatively little in material resources and training, provide flexibility in both timing and targeting, and, as proven, have a high rate of success. In addition, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have become rather adept at adjusting their tactics to defeat new defenses against IEDs. There already have been several under-publicized incidents in the United States itself involving IEDs – but those attacks have caused only minimal damage so far. However, the psychological impact is starting to show, and a growing number of experts in the fields of terrorism and counterterrorism predict that more, and more destructive, IED attacks on U.S. soil may be just over the horizon. Whether that prediction becomes a reality or not, it seems clear that the nation’s response community must be much better prepared than it now is to protect their communities and fellow citizen from such attacks.

Needed: Clear Thinking, and Decisive Action

Because of the inherent complexity of an IED attack, the individual responder is faced with the need to make several decisions – immediately in many cases, and sometimes simultaneously. The most complex decision involves the identification of potential hazards, a complex task that involves, among other factors, the recognition and assessment of various “indicators” that may (or may not) provide helpful clues that indicate the possible presence of an IED. Among those indicators are the receipt of a written or oral threat and the presence of unidentified and/or seemingly non-threatening packages. The responder also must be aware of unidentified people in a potential target area who seem out of place, and ensure that the appropriate law-enforcement agencies have been notified.

When arriving at the scene of a potential IED attack, responders should first establish a staging area at a safe distance from the reported address. They also should keep a close and continuing surveillance of the surrounding area, noting potential points of both egress and access, and keeping a particularly close lookout for suspicious-looking packages as well as people. They also must set up a protective perimeter to protect themselves as well as others in the area.

If in fact one or more strong indicators is found – e.g., an unidentified package or suspicious-looking device – the responders’ exit strategy is simple: They should stop whatever else they are doing, mark the area clearly, and retreat to a safe distance until trained EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) personnel have arrived and are ready to take over. EOD personnel are better trained today than ever before, fortunately, to handle suspicious packages.

To summarize: The IED threat is already causing increased concern to the nation’s first-responder community, and for good reason. When emergency commanders receive a call for assistance, they should gather as much information as possible before sending a response unit to the scene of a suspected IED. In addition, first-responder agencies and emergency-management officials should already be carefully reviewing their plans for responding to suspicious incidents, and should ensure that those plans include the eventuality of an IED incident. These same agencies need to train all of their personnel, not just the response units, but anyone who may become involved in any way with an IED incident. In short, not only the federal government but the individual states and cities must move much more quickly to prepare and plan to cope with what could become a wave of IED incidents before such incidents take place on a scale that today can only be imagined in a worst-case scenario.

Glen Rudner
Glen Rudner

Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.

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