Potentially Explosive Situations

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus

CDE Fire

*To take the corresponding CDE quiz, visit the College of Emergency Dispatch.*

On April 15, 2013, at approximately 2:49 p.m., two bombs exploded within seconds of each other near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three spectators and injuring 260 others. The bombs were made out of pressure cookers packed with shrapnel and left inside backpacks among the crowd.

On its own, a backpack is a harmless object, as are grocery bags, purses, and suitcases. But any of those items left unattended in a public area like a park or mall could be cause for concern.

That’s where you come in. The Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®) Protocol 74: Suspicious Package (Letter, Item, Substance)/Explosives isn’t one you’ll use on a daily basis. In fact, in the past three years, only 518 of the 1.21 million fire calls collected in the IAED’s Data Center have been triaged with this Chief Complaint. Out of those 518, over 75% were triaged at a Determinant Level of CHARLIE or lower. Like all low-frequency, high-acuity Chief Complaint calls, however, you’ll be glad you took the time to review and prepare for these situations when they do arise.

When to use it
When will you use Protocol 74: Suspicious Package (Letter, Item, Substance)/Explosives rather than Protocol 76: Bomb Threat? You will use Protocol 76: Bomb Threat in situations where the threat of violence is clear and explicit—either the people being threatened are calling, or the bomber is calling emergency services to ensure that their threat is received. The bomb itself may or may not be visible in these circumstances, and there may not even be a bomb. Whether or not the perpetrator intends to follow through with it, the intent is to create fear.

Protocol 74: Suspicious Package (Letter, Item, Substance)/Explosives is best for situations when a potentially dangerous object is visible, but no malicious intent has been expressed. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any! It just might not be immediately obvious. That’s why it’s best to handle these cases as carefully as possible. When you don’t know an object’s purpose, you’ll rarely be sorry you were too cautious.

In the example of the Boston Marathon bombing, if someone in the crowd had spotted the unattended backpacks and called to report them, the call could have been handled using Protocol 74. If the bombers had called the marathon’s organizers or the Boston (Massachusetts, USA) Fire Department to create fear or try to get the event canceled, then it could have been handled on Protocol 76.

Suspected Contamination
In September and October 2001, letters with weaponized anthrax were sent to a number of elected officials in the U.S. This attack killed 5 people and sickened 17. Since that time, the fear tactic of sending envelopes with white powder in them has been copied many times, albeit mostly with white powders that are harmless household products like flour or baby powder. Recently, some disgruntled people have tried the tactic with crushed fentanyl, which has the potential to be dangerous but doesn’t pose anywhere near the same threat as anthrax.

That said, if a caller reports that there is unknown white powder (or residue) on a package or envelope, the responding firefighters need to be aware of it so they can be sure to approach and investigate it safely. A pretty good indicator that the object was sent or placed with ill intent is that one of the people who interacted with it is sick or injured, so those types of situations use separate Determinant Codes.

Why do military ordnances and actual explosives only get a BRAVO-level Determinant Code? Surely an unexploded shell discovered in a garden or a hand grenade kept as a souvenir in a shed for decades poses as much threat as an actual bomb. They potentially can! Unexploded military ordnances and bundles of dynamite can be just as destructive as a pipe bomb or time bomb if it’s moved or handled.

However, as with unattended objects, the intent very much matters. If someone is calling to let the fire department know that they found something potentially dangerous, it’s not typically a hostile threat to general health and safety. The fact that they are calling to seek help means they don’t want anyone harmed in the removal process.

In most cases, the ordnance will be in a known location, and the caller will be advised not to approach, touch, or otherwise interact with the item(s) and to keep others away if it is safe for them to do so. The response to a decades-old grenade should be expedient, but it doesn’t need to be of ECHO or even DELTA urgency. As long as there’s no potentially hostile intent or imminent threat of detonation, it’s safe to classify this as a BRAVO-level call.

PAIs and PDIs
In any potentially explosive (pun intended) situation, it seems like common sense to tell the caller not to get closer to or touch a suspicious item, but it needs to be done. You’ll instruct the caller not to touch or handle the item not once but three times in the course of using this Protocol: once in the Key Questions (“Without getting any closer or touching it, describe the item to me.”), once with the PDIs (“Do not touch or handle the item.”), and once in Case Exit (“Do not touch or approach the device/package/letter/item.”). We don’t want anyone to get hurt! Scene safety is paramount for the callers and the responders.

Although it may also seem like common sense to have the caller evacuate the area, evacuation may or may not be the right decision for a given situation. One of the Axioms on this Protocol reminds you that “An evacuation may place more people in greater danger if not conducted properly.” Check your agency’s local policies to know what to instruct the caller to do in these situations.

Updates in FPDS v8
When version 8 of the FPDS is released in 2024, there will be many updates to this Protocol. These will include an option to classify objects as “unattended” without necessarily being “suspicious.” And it will also allow for the possibility that an object might not be inside a building—it could be outside, in a car, on a bridge, etc. These changes will better inform the fire department so they can be sure they’re sending the proper resources for the situation.

As with some other Chief Complaints in the FPDS, the Description Essentials (DE) tools will be replaced with free-type boxes that allow you to type in precisely what the caller says without having to tab through boxes asking for the size, shape, or color of an object that may or may not fit what the caller has seen. 

After giving a presentation to some EFDs about the dangers of suspicious and unattended packages with Mike Thompson, Fire Protocol, Academics and Standards Expert, Gary Galasso, Chair, IAED™ Council of Fire Standards, once saw a backpack lying on a bench in a small town with no owner in sight. Galasso called the local first responders to report it, and the Emergency Dispatcher told him to bring it to the station so they could take a closer look at it. Aware that the backpack could be more dangerous than it appeared, Galasso politely declined.

“To think that something like this can’t happen in your area is a mistake,” he said.

It might seem like overkill to report every unattended object as something that could potentially contain an explosive, but history and experience have taught us that it can save lives if we err on the side of caution. That’s why “unattended object/item” is being added to version 8. If there’s not really a reason for the caller to suspect that the grocery sack might blow up, but they still want to check just in case, there’s a lower acuity pathway for that.

Go forth and practice scenarios! There might be a day when you’ll be very glad you did.