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Colo. massacre: Bomb threat response for first responders

We must be vigilant in our future response to bomb threats as copycat criminals may emerge from the incident last week in Aurora, Colorado

Responding to bomb threats as a first responder is a daunting task. Most bomb threats that we respond to are found to be a hoax. We must be vigilant in our future response to bomb threats as copycat criminals may emerge from the incident last week in Aurora, Colorado.

Police agencies policies are the backbone for a proper response from first responders. Policies must be established well before a major incident occurs. The following information is some suggested practices to familiarize uniformed officers with a base line of response tactics to a typical bomb threat.

This article does not address bomb threats in an active shooter response. That is a dynamic situation needing much more time for discussion.

The Threat
The majority of bomb threats in this country are taken over the phone, usually from an emergency dispatcher. A couple obvious questions that the first responder would like to have answered prior to responding to the bomb threat are:

Where is the bomb?
What does it look like?
What reason is the bomb placed for?
What are the caller’s name, address and current location?
When will it detonate?
What kind of bomb is it?
What will cause it to detonate?

These questions are basic and as you respond to the threat you may think of questions that are more specific to that situation. These seven questions however, should drive the early thought process and planning prior to your arrival. With a little luck dispatchers will ask all of these questions and have an answer ready for you.

The Search
The next step is to evaluate the bomb threat and determine its credibility. Many agencies give credence to a person’s accent, international events, the callers knowledge of the device, and even if the caller appears to be nervous or anxious as indicators for its credibility. That may lend to a relaxed response and can be dangerous.

My perspective is that if we get a call of a bomb threat, then it’s a credible threat until we have responded and cleared the objective.

First responders will need to clear the objective first thing upon arrival. However, establishing an upwind perimeter of at least 300 to 1,000 feet and having dispatchers ask a supervisor at the threat location if they are willing to evacuate the objective should be done prior to the search. The building should be searched by first responders and persons familiar with the building and its contents so that they can inform you of anything that looks suspicious or out of place.

Turn off any electronics that emit an RF signal such as your radio and cell phone prior to arriving to the scene. Request a K-9 that is trained to search for explosives if you have that option. The search should be a systematic room-by-room, floor-by-floor search.

The first step is for you and the building contact to approach the first room to be cleared, stop at the door and listen for unusual noises, look into windows for unusual objects, open the door and scan the room for trip wires using a laser pointer pen, and then search the room. Do not touch or move any suspicious devices or packages! Search the room completely and move onto the next room until the building is completely cleared.

Using people that normally occupy work areas to search their own areas is a great way for conducting a rapid search. These personnel will be familiar with what does or does not belong in their particular area. The occupants should check their areas prior to leaving the property at the request of dispatchers.

Explosives 101
Explosions are usually classified as burning, combustion, or detonation style. The burning begins at one end of the charge and travels with in a few thousandths of a second through the entire charge. Gunpowder would be an example a burning explosive.

A detonation explosion occurs when the material receives a sudden shock or jar. A shock wave passes through the material, all particles break down together, and the explosion is completed in a few millionths of a second.

Detonating explosives are usually subdivided into two categories, primary and secondary. Primary explosives detonate by ignition from some source such as flame, spark, impact, or other means that will produce heat of sufficient magnitude. Secondary explosives require a detonator and, in some cases, a supplementary booster.

A few explosives can be both primary and secondary depending on application.

Dynamite explodes by detonation. Placing a match to a stick of dynamite will not produce an explosion. However, with the use of a blasting cap, primer, or a fuse, a shattering force will result. Since the primary explosion is extremely rapid burning, it follows that any flammable substance can become explosive to some degree if it can be made to burn rapidly enough. Since all ordinary fire or combustion is caused by the combination of the burning substance with the gas oxygen.

Coal gas, hydrogen, and the vapors of gasoline, alcohol, ether, and turpentine can all become explosive.

The pipe bomb is a common device that can be made to look like anything the bomber desires. The bombers design is only limited by his/her imagination. Some other explosives have been morphed into letters, suitcases, coffee cups and delivery trucks filed with fertilizer and fuel oil creating bombs that can be very deceiving and deadly.

Here are a few items that may cause concern for the first responder if discovered at a scene of a bomb threat, explosives-related pamphlets, periodicals and books, excessive amounts of galvanized or PVC pipe nipples and or caps, low-explosive powders or other incendiary mixtures, fuses of any type to include homemade burning fuses, such as string soaked in a burning powder, electrical switches, electrical matches, blasting caps or similar initiators.

The Detection
Once a suspected device is located then immediately back away from that area and request a professional bomb squad to respond to your location. Make sure the area has been evacuated entirely and expand your perimeter. Be sure that no radio transmissions are made within 300 feet of the suspected device. Note license tag numbers of all vehicles around the general area and initiate registration and stolen checks to determine if any of the vehicles are rented or stolen.

Keep in mind once a device has been found, property management no longer has the authority to decide whether or not to evacuate. The fire departments in many states are empowered by state law to force the evacuation of property that is a danger to the public. Call for a supervisor to the scene, and advise him or her that an evacuation is taking place. Supervision upon their arrival will then establish incident command. Keep the property management in one location, and upon the arrival of your police supervisor, make sure that he or she is aware of who the property manager is, and where they can be found.

The Detonation
The first responders priority is get the injured parties to a safe location at least 1,000 feet from any blast area. Be aware of secondary devices. Do not attempt to search for or touch any suspected secondary device. Establish a collection point for wounded persons 300 to 1,000 feet from ground zero. Activate your emergency lights on your patrol car and direct the walking wounded to this location over the radio PA system. 

Assisting first responders should begin the evacuation of all persons from the blast site. All persons who are not injured should be directed to a central location and kept at the site for investigators to interview.

Those injured persons who cannot walk, and are ambulatory should be taken to the triage area by any means available. This means a "load and go" type transport may be necessary using your patrol vehicles to get the injured to the triage area. The injured should be taken to safety as quickly as possible.

The emergency treatment of injured persons should be turned over to qualified emergency medical personnel as soon as possible. Leave deceased bodies of bomb-blast victims in place, just as with any other crime scene, to allow for the collection of evidence that may have forensic value.

First responders will have a difficult job of controlling traffic and crowds at this type of incident. Once emergency medical personnel are on site, first responders should transition to securing the site, and establishing a smooth flow of emergency vehicles to and from the site.

Take all bomb threats as credible threats, no matter what the circumstances are, and follow department policy.

Stay Safe.

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