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Flash Bang 101

In June 2005, I wrote about diversionary devices and the value of "bang sticks" in their safe and effective use. I received a number of emails following that post, and in response am offering the following foundational information that addresses: 

  1. A  historical overview of the NFDD
  2. Training and operational considerations for hand deployment

Historical Overview

The first documented use of an NFDD was in 1976 at Entebbe, Uganda. The bright light and thunderous report distracted the suspect's attention, and allowed Israeli team members to affect the rescue. In 1977, the GSG9 followed suit at Mogadishu, Somalia, and the 22nd SAS did likewise at Princess Gate in 1980. When these incidents occurred, progressive operators across the globe "perked right up", and SWAT pioneers in the Los Angeles area began looking for devices that would create the desired effects.

This effort was met with negative results, as it was quickly learned that there was nothing available on the U.S. commercial market. Tenacity being a trait of most tactical teams, the U.S. operators wouldn't take no for an answer. They turned to the military, which had been using "big bangs" in training for many years. Readily available devices were tested, and several eventually were used in operations. The lessons learned became a catalyst for commercial development, and led to the products that are in use today. The general evolution is outlined as follows: 

  1. M115A2 artillery simulator-Bursting canister: This six inch cardboard tube contained 60 grams of "flash powder". It was initiated by a "pull string" friction fuse, with an average delay of 6-12 seconds. It was loud, bright, and smoky. Unfortunately, the delay was so long that the critical element of surprise was often lost. The 60-gram charge was also much too powerful. Anecdotal reports still flow through "swat shops" concerning the blistering effects of the mighty "M1-15". 
  2. M116A1 grenade simulator: This device shares the physical design of the M115A2, but has only 38 grams of flash powder. The reduction in noise and overpressure were an improvement, but the friction fuse delay precluded it from serious operational consideration.   
  3. M116A1-modified: LAPD explosives expert Arlie Mcrea "modified" the M116A1, by reducing the charge to 18 grams and replacing the friction fuse with the "pull pin" M201A1 (.7 to 2.0 seconds delay). The blast effects were "thunderous", and numerous operational deployments were documented in which the suspects were effectively distracted. The device showed much promise, and was eventually manufactured and sold commercially by DELETEC. Unfortunately, as would be observed time and again, solving one NFDD problem often created another. In this case, the fuze that offered such timely and reliable ignition also became a high speed projectile after the blast.
  4. Separating submunition: In response to the flying fuze risk, commercial manufacturers built devices that separated the primary charge from the canister that contained the fuze, milliseconds before ignition. This resulted in a timely ignition that was separated from intimate contact with the fuze, and effectively kept the heads from becoming missiles. Unfortunately, the charge was propelled up to 25 feet, and with this went control over where it would ultimately ignite, including:
  • Directly against the suspect's body.
  • Under flammable items such as gas heaters and couches.
  • Out the door towards officers. 

Several critical injuries and catastrophic fires later, SWAT commanders were wondering whether the cure for the flying fuze was worse than the disease. The search for the safer NFDD continued.  

  • Separating fuze: Engineers then designed a device that would "pop" the fuze head off the body prior to deflagration. The energy required to separate the fuze was significantly less than that required to propel the charge. Less energy equals less movement. Less movement equals less chance of the device going off where it wasn't intended to. Unfortunately, reliability problems precluded such devices from wide spread use.  
  • Non-bursting canister: This is a hollow, perforated metallic cylinder (with small holes usually on the ends), that allows the release of the blast energy without disintegration. This type device is the most common police NFDD in use. 
  • New generation bursting canisters: These devices vary in design from very high tech to relatively crude, and fill a niche relating to light carry weight and preventing "throw back" potential. They generally enjoy limited use outside of highly specialized units such as the FBI/HRT, military units, and some teams serving in the custody environment.

Potential for death or serious physical injury

As noted in the earlier text (Policeone, June, 2005), the primary causative factor in such cases involves intimate contact with the device; either by officers during handling, suspects following hand deployment, or officer/suspect contact with a post blast "launched" metallic body.
1. Ignition near the user's hand: These injuries generally involve officer mishandling-post event "explanations" aside. In the recent past, users have lost entire hands, parts of hands, and flesh from various parts of the body (including the face) during operational deployments and training exercises. Issues most often involved include:

  • Bursting canister devices
  • Questions concerning training, and/or the manner in which the device was handled as it relates to the spoon and web of the hand.

Noted exceptions have involved a reload only from a non-bursting canister, that was  being held in the users hand as it ignited and effectively functioning as a bursting canister, and non-bursting canister "direct jet effect" traumatic injuries.  In overly simplistic terms, the non-bursting metallic canisters are the most common law enforcement devices for a reason. They offer fairly predictable performance, and should an accident occur are as forgiving as any such device can be.

2. Contact with launched metallic canisters: A number of situations have been documented in which the bodies have launched at the moment of deflagration, and struck persons in the room. The distances and circumstances are varied, and operators have been struck in the face and seriously injured. Manufacturers have improved designs to address this issue, but many of the devices proven to launch are still in the field. Thousands have been deployed in training and actual operations, and from a statistical standpoint the potential for a launch injury is low. Likewise, the potential does exist and serious injuries have occurred. As a result, it is reasonable and prudent to take steps to ensure the safety of officers and citizens alike. This simply involves hand deploying a device that has no record of launching, or using the "bang stick" as discussed previously.   

3. Civilian contact during ignition: The key to avoiding this is ensuring that the device is placed in a manner that precludes such intimate contact with the suspect. The first step in proper hand placement is learning whether your device will "blow where you throw". This is determined by spending a little time at the range doing tests and evaluation. Throw an inert device on a variety of surfaces, and see if it will stay within a foot of where it contacts. The most common devices on the market today are metallic non-bursting canisters. Most are cylinder shaped and roll easily on hard surfaces. Some agencies have minimized the roll by securely duct taping short lengths of dowel rod to the sides, or sought out other devices/methods to keep the device in proximity to where it was thrown.  Once this issue is resolved, the next step involves emphasizing the following areas during training:

  • Visual inspection: The user MUST confirm positively that all areas are safe prior to tossing the device (no "blind deployments" or "window drops"). Special emphasis must be given to avoiding deployment out of fear. This happens when officers are involved in an extremely high-risk incident, and they pitch the device blindly immediately following the breach. Few officers admit to doing this. Likewise, numerous suspect injuries have occurred that have no other reasonable explanation as to how the device and suspect got together. If the event is so dangerous that an officer might avoid positioning himself where he can look inside the door, an alternative deployment plan must be considered.
  • Avoid looking directly at the suspect when releasing the device: This almost always causes the device to be thrown closer to the suspect than the suggested five feet, due to the "pitch and catch" process we have subconsciously practiced since childhood. Officers should instead focus on the floor 45 degrees to the side, and 5 feet away from the suspect. 
  • Use a "coming out" location: Officers must be instructed on what to do if they realize after breaching that the device cannot be safely deployed. A common practice is to choose a "coming out" location during the pre-raid briefing. This is a point away from the entry team where the live device can be deployed if the primary location is found to be unsafe (children, flammable material, numerous persons laying on the floor, etc.). Outdoor deployments usually involve the yard directly behind the team. The team member will recognize the danger, announce "coming out", then deploy the device safely to the pre-designated area. Indoor deployments are more challenging. Extremely close quarters such as row houses and apartment hallways frequently have persons unexpectedly stepping into the event. As a result, there may not be a safe place for alternative deployment. In cases such as this the officer will announce "coming out", clear the doorway to allow immediate entry, and remove himself from further participation. The device will be properly held with the web of the hand firmly depressing the spoon against the body. The obvious problem can then be addressed in one of two ways:
  1. The first involves re-pinning the NFDD. This is dangerous and not recommended; but occasionally is done by adventurous personnel with low IQ's.
  2. The second involves waiting for the location to be secured, and then the "holding" officer announces that he has a live device. Direction from a team member concerning an unoccupied location within the dwelling will be given.  The "holding" officer proceeds to that point for deployment, after twice announcing, "fire in the hole." 

In the absence of a pre-event plan, officers have deployed devices directly on top of the occupants, or carried the live device in their hand as they participated in the clearing. Neither of these options should be considered viable.

Noise flash diversionary devices continue to be a viable tactical option in certain police circumstances. Officers and agencies must ensure that they recognize potential risks involving their use, and do what it takes to reduce the probability of such negative outcomes. 

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