Guest Commentary by T.C. Fuller, Special Agent in the Burlington, Vermont, Resident Agency of the FBI's Albany Division.
TRAINING FIRST-RESPONDING OFFICERS
The fact that officers discover suspect packages that have not detonated prior to their arrival constitutes a victory for law enforcement. At this point, officers armed with basic knowledge about handling suspect packages can initiate an organized, professional response to lessen the danger to themselves and to innocent bystanders. Most important, these informed officers know that no way exists for determining what will detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) until it has been examined. Therefore, their only safe course remains to assume that the device could detonate at any time for any reason.
Hands Off the Package
The most important rule in handling suspect packages remains: DO NOT TOUCH the package. Officers should remember that bomb squad personnel, with the benefit of specialized training and equipment, will not approach a suspect package until one of them has donned a bomb suit and helmet, and they have gathered as much initial information as possible. If officers must approach suspect packages, they should try to take the same path as others who may have approached the packages before their arrival. The same caution remains when officers depart the area.
Additionally, because suspect packages can prove harmless, contain an actual device, or lure officers into an ambush, officers must remember the "street smarts" and survival tactics that they employ every day in their normal police duties. While instances of secondary devices placed specifically to target first responders have not become as common in the United States, officers must remain vigilant to this potential threat whenever they encounter suspect packages.
Clear the Area
In handling potential bomb situations, officers should evacuate the area immediately and ensure that no one reenters. Establishing an initial "exclusion area" of a 300-foot radius constitutes a good rule to follow. Suspect packages, regardless of their size, found near potentially dangerous materials usually require a larger exclusion area. For example, officers discovering a small suspect package next to a large propane tank obviously should expand the 300-foot exclusion rule.
Moreover, during an evacuation, officers must plan the routes that individuals will use to leave the area. Officers must ensure that escape routes do not bring these individuals close to the device. Also, officers at the scene should request as many additional officers as needed to clear and secure the area. Because these scenes prove highly visible and attract many onlookers, including the media, getting individuals out and keeping them out of these areas remain vital to ensuring their safety.
Alert Emergency Personnel
Along with clearing the area, officers should alert fire and emergency medical personnel. Officers should give these support units explicit instructions on how to approach the scene and where to wait. In case the device detonates, officers just keep these units far enough away so that they do not become incapacitated, yet close enough to respond rapidly. Also, officers and bomb squad members must maintain dependable communication with these personnel, even face-to-face contact, to ensure that all involved services understand the situation.
Moreover, until fire and medical emergency personnel arrive, bomb squad members will not approach a suspect package because they may need these services themselves if the device detonates.
Turn Off the Radios
Officers should curtail all radio use within 300 feet of a suspected IED. Because all devices have a fuse, and some employ an electric firing system, using radio transmitters near such a device risks providing it with enough electromagnetic energy to detonate. After bomb squad members conduct an initial reconnaissance, they can provide officers with guidelines about using radios at the scene.
Investigate the Scene
After officers have cleared the area and alerted emergency personnel, they should initiate a preliminary investigation of the scene being careful not to reenter the evacuated area. At this point, the area involved has become a potential crime scene and officers should treat it as such. Patrol officers initiate crime scene investigations every day, and the standard rules apply to the scenes of suspect packages or IEDs.
As soon as possible, officers should identify and segregate witnesses and interview individuals who actually saw the device. They should have witnesses describe the suspect package in detail, including sketching the device. Because bomb squad members will want to speak with these individuals, they should stay near the scene. However, officers need to keep all witnesses apart from each other to prevent them from exchanging crucial information. Additional questions officers should ask witnesses include many similar to those they would ask at other crime scenes:
- Has someone recently threatened the area or anyone associated with it?
- Does anyone have a grudge to settle that might manifest itself in such a manner?
- Who found the package? When?
- Has anyone approached the package? If so, by what route?
- Has anyone touched the package?
- Does anyone have any suspects?
- Do any of the suspects identified in the initial investigation have the knowledge to build such a device?
Today, society demands much from its law enforcement officers. As a result, time for training becomes a premium, constantly competing with the need for officers to remain on the street. Therefore, very few officers ever receive any training on how to identify and react to suspect packages. However, with the increase in dramatic bombings in the United States and abroad over the last few years, most departments should find the time to train their officers in handling such situations. If first-responding officers have received even the most rudimentary training in basic immediate reactions, they can greatly reduce or eliminate any danger presented by these devices.
Special Agent Fuller serves in the Burlington, Vermont, Resident Agency of the FBI's Albany Division.
This piece was previously published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and is published here with its permission