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First Responders under Terror Threats

First Responders under Terror Threats

David Schinasi


In the event of a tragic incident, where people, buildings, or vehicles are involved, it is always difficult at first to determine if it a result of a human error or some terroristic activities.

          The immediate responders to any incident are usually people who have survived it, or people who were in the proximity of the

scene. Then, the officials are called. Usually the official first responders composed of local police force, paramedics, and firefighters.

When they arrive on the scene they have to assess the situation rapidly and respond accurately to it. Incorrect actions or luck of

information might result in additional casualties from first responders like. For example: during the attacks of September 11, 2001 more

than hundred firefighters were sent inside the towers without knowing the structural condition of them, which resulted in additional

death count. During the abortion clinic explosion in Atlanta, first responders got injured by a second explosive device going off. When

official emergency services respond to a certain situation, most of the time they do not know if it is a terrorist attack or simply an

incident. Thus, they often become additional victims. Based on that, there is a clear need for an additional training for those units.

            First responders play an important role in the emergency response service during any kind of terrorist attacks: explosive,

biological, chemical, and nuclear. Their knowledge and their training are a priority in an effective response to reduce more casualties and

saving as many lives as possible.

            In January 1997 at 9:30 A.M., two bombs have exploded at Atlanta North side Family Planning Services, an Atlanta suburb abortion

clinic. Both explosive devises went off at different times. The first device had caused only material damages; however the second one

have injured six people among the Police, firefighters and journalists that were on site. The first bomb most likely was located inside or

outside of walls of the building and was probably not intended to harm anyone but only to cause fear. The clinic was almost empty that

day and no patients were in the waiting room. When Police arrived on site, people inside the building were already evacuated.

Firefighters were sent on site to extinguish a small fire created by the explosion. The Police started to investigate what causes of the

explosion. At the same time, journalists were reporting live the incident and curious people were walking around to watch the emergency

response movements. At exactly 10:30 P.M., there was another explosion between two vehicles in the parking lot of the abortion clinic,

not far away from the first explosion. F.B.I., A.T.F. agents, a local firefighter, and a reporter were injured by metal pieces ejected by the

second explosion. Fortunately, none of the injured was in serious conditions and soon they were released. It was not clear for the

detectives what the target of these bomb attacks was. The first explosive was situated by the abortion clinic, but the second one was

possibly placed in a trash bin in proximity of the parking lot where the emergency services had their vehicles parked. Investigators did

not know if the intended target was the abortion clinic or others offices in the same building. At this point, they were not ruling out

domestic terrorism as a responsible party of this heinous act. The police did still not know how the bombs were manufactured because

of the difficulties components analysis. (Bragg, 1997)

            On September 11, United States of America were attacked simultaneously on different locations. Four high jacked American

commercial jetliners were used as weapons on the Trade World Center, and the Pentagon. After the first plane hit one of the towers,

emergency responders arrived in minutes at the WTC 1, entered the tower and started to assist with the evacuation of the residents,

initiated the search and rescue task, as well as working on the fire suppression. Then, a second commercial plane hit the second tower

causing a huge fire on the top of the building exactly like the first plane. While the first responders were trying to save lives inside the

buildings, suddenly both structures collapsed killing hundreds of responders from New York City Police, and Fire Department, and police

officers and firefighters from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Approximately 3,000 people were killed in this terror

attacks, and about 7,000 were injured. (Jackson, 2002)

            During the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two explosive devices went off among the crowd that was watching the runners

arriving at the finish line. Each device, made with pressure cookers and fireworks powder, went off within 8-12 seconds and 50-100 yards

of each other. Three people, a young kid and two women, were killed instantly, a dozen people were seriously injured, and hundreds

were treated with mild injuries. On April 16, 2013, President Barack Obama announced to the American people that a terrorist attack has

been committed against innocent civilians in Boston during the marathon and the responsible of this heinous act will be brought to

justice. A gigantic state, and city law enforcement and federal agents operation started to search for the suspects all around Boston and

the suburb. One day after the terrorist attack, Federal Bureau of Investigation released the pictures of the prime suspects; two men later

identified them as 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, brothers from a suburb of Boston,

Massachusetts. They were originally from Chechen region and legally immigrated into the United States. During the night of April 19th,

the brothers were hunted down in Watertown where, after gunfire was exchanged with the law enforcement, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died of

injuries and Dzhokhar was apprehended next day in Watertown. (CNN, 2014)

            At both, the abortion clinic and the Boston marathon bombs explosions, first responders were not trained to respond effectively

and safely to a post blast event. When an explosion is occurred, a post-blast emergency response action is taking place. For the major of

the cases, after an explosive event with huge numbers of casualties occurred, the sight of dead bodies and building demolition can

mentally devastate first responders that are arriving on the scene. Since 9/11, every emergency response departments in the civilian and

military fields have discusses how their personnel need to respond and operate safely after a terrorist or criminal explosion happened

on a site. During the response phase, the dispatch action becomes very important like collecting all the possible information about the

nature and location of the incident. The use of cell phone and radio frequency has to be forbidden in the area of the blast and using

messengers for collecting information to blast zone are required. When the first responders are arriving on the blast scene, they have to

continue to look with tremendous vigilance and scanning the area in 360-degrees, looking for objects or persons that are out of the

ordinary. It’s very important, for the first responders to create, staging areas in different locations and not assembling them in one zone

which would put them at risk of a second explosive device. When an explosive device going off, it’s absolute imperative that the Police or

security personnel disperse the spectators and by standers away from the blast zone and create a protected perimeter. First responders,

with Personal Protective Equipment, should enter a blast zone first to monitor for other hazards such as chemical agents, gases or

radioactive materials and to save injured people. The big threat for the first responders remains a second explosive device that is on the

terrain or attached to a suicide bomber. When a suicide-bombing incident is recognized and a second suspect is identified but has not

exploded, a danger is still real for the emergency responders. A handler or an associate could still detonate the device on the second

suspect. The bomb unit technicians or with a robot device should be the first to approach a bomber or suspected suicide bomber.

Therefore, bomb technicians and explosive K9 units should always search for secondary or a third explosive devices during and after the

emergency response. A hazard control zones should be always created around the blast zone and an escape route should be available to

leave the blast zone if needed. (Vernon)

            In Israel, the first responders who include the Emergency Medical Services, Police, Fire Department, military Home Front

Command and Bomb Squads, operate under different standards. However, when a terror attack strikes, they know how to work together

as one unit to decrease mortality and assure scene safety, and establish security control. Their capabilities of coordinated operating

decrease the response time, and allow providing rapid care to victims by bringing them to trauma centers, and by decreasing the time

spent in the hot zone. (Waldman, 2012, p. 1)

            However, first responders should not be trained only for bomb situations. In addition, they should be ready to answer to chemical,

biological, radiological, or nuclear events as well. Industrial catastrophe, work-related exposure, natural calamity, war or acts of terrorism

are the main challenges that can activate a CBRN emergency response. The first responder’s medical knowledge and expertise of treating

injuries more effectively can reduce the percentage of victims, and decrease the spread of viruses.  For every CBRN event, the early

detection is most important way for the first responder how to react to the problem. The detection is divided in three distinguished

actions: detection, identification, and monitoring. After arriving on an incident scene, the simple use of an explosion danger meter which

can detect the presence of explosive gas, and a nuclear agent dose-rate meter are essential to prepare the responder to organize better

his Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  In 1984 in Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh in India, the unexpected release of toxic

methylisocyanate gas from a plant, created thousands of casualties by overpowering the units of unprepared health and medical

services. This calamity is one of the disasters that have taught CBRN responders who are working in the field with hazardous materials

that a well-organized triage can help to utilize the existing medical supply and contain the issue.  When responders arrive on a critical

site, they respond to the initial phase also called “START” that stands for Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment. This phase will assist in

quickly identifying those patients that need urgent care and transportation. The triage is an important phase of the emergency response

because all victims would be tagged according to the seriousness of their conditions and placed into one of the following categories:

immediate (critical) = red tag, delayed (urgent) = yellow tag, minor (ambulatory) = green tag, deceased (expired) = black tag. For an

effective site management, the CBRN scene has to be isolated with a security access, direct and secure the transfer of the contaminated

victims, and offer a safe environment for the emergency responders. The site has to be divided in three areas, especially if it’s a chemical

one: the contaminated zone, hot zone, a clean treatment area, (also called the cold zone, 300 yards upwind the contaminated area), and

the warm zone, (50 yards away from the cold zone), were first responders will be decontaminated. First responders need to be trained

and equipped with personal protective equipment before having access to an infected area to protect their airway, skin, and eyes. The

PPE are usually divided in three levels suits A, B, and C, and are generally composed of a suit that is fully covering the body, with gloves

and boots attached to the suit itself and a respiratory device. (Ramesh, 2010)


            Domestic and international terrorism activities have been affecting the world and the United States, politically, economically and

psychologically. In the last hundred years some of those terrorist attacks have happened on US soil and have affected most of the

population. Terrorists have improved their methods, and have changed their tactics to target more victims and to cause more casualties

among innocent civilians and first responders. After 9/11 attacks, EMS units, other personnel as sanitation engineers, construction

workers, who were dispatched to the World Trade Center’s sites tried to save as many people as possible from the ruins. Most of them

arrived on scene without any Personal Protection Equipment protection. The majority of them was exposed for several months to the

chemical substances from the towers ruins and became very sick and unable to work again. Therefore, the first minutes after a terrorist

attack are very critically because of the way the EMS responds to it can change the outcome of the entire emergency operation. Although,

terroristic or CBRN events are definitively different from each other, they require different emergency responses. While some of those

events are small, and they still affect emotionally the population, others are huge and disastrous, like the 9/11, and have an assortment

of several risks. Each criminal or terror attack site has to be considered a crime scene that needs to be protected for the reason of

collecting evidence that will help authorities to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Since those events are diverse, and

sometime complicated, the first responders have to be prepared and professionally equipped to respond to any incident, criminal or not,

and, at the same time to preserve a possible crime scene. The responders need to know how to deal with explosions, fire, agent spills,

bio hazardous materials, and knowing how to treat the location as an investigation scene. The emergency response system composed by

professional and volunteers needs to have nationwide standards, regulations, and ensure the same federal level of knowledge and

training. Since the local first responders are sometimes civilian or fire rescue volunteers from local stations that respond to emergencies,

they need to be trained to assess quickly the situation and respond to it accordingly. With the right training and the right PPE, uniformed

and civilians first responders have become an important asset to respond effectively to critical incident. Both groups should learn

together what their tasks are and learn to improve their communication skills under stressful situations. 


Bomb Squad Response to Bombing/ Explosive Incidents. (2009, February 1). Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

Boston Marathon Terror Attack Fast Facts. (2014, September 26). Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

Bragg, R. (1997, January 16). 2 Bomb Blasts Rock Abortion Clinic at Atlanta; 6 Are Injured. Retrieved October 3, 2014, from

Burke, R. (2006). Counter-terrorism for emergency responders (2nd edition). Boca Raton, FL, USA: CRC Press.

Jackson, B. (2002). 2. In Protecting emergency responders lessons learned from terrorist attacks (p. 109). Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand.

Ramesh, A., & Kumar, S. (2010, December 29). Triage, monitoring, and treatment of mass casualty events involving chemical, biological,      radiological, or nuclear agents. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from in the United States. (1996, January 1). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from

Vernon, A. (n.d.). Explosives Post-Blast Response. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from and Exp

Waldman, M., Richman,, A., & Shapira, S. (2012, January 1). Tactical Medicine- The Israeli Revised Protocol. MILITARY MEDICINE,, 4-4.

Originally written September 9, 2014

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