[Photo: Search and rescue workers gather at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Courtesy of FEMA.]
A course being taught at New Mexico Tech (NMT) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness is widening the imagination of response personnel from various entities, including hospitals, which may be susceptible to attacks involving bombs because of their welcoming nature.
The Incident Response to Terrorist Bombing course is being taught at the university’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center in Socorro, N.M., on a 40-square-mile explosives range. Instructors include police officers who supervised the responses to the Oklahoma City and Atlanta 1996 Olympics bombings.
Incidents studied included the Oklahoma City bombing; the 1996 Summer Olympics and abortion clinic bombings in Atlanta; incidents in Mumbai; the Russian terrorist incident in a Basra school; as well as improvised explosive device use in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Everything we learned in class was connected back to the lab,” said D.J. Phalen, clinical manager with Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, who attended the course.
As a result of the course, Phalen plans to rewrite some policies and engage the local SWAT team and bomb squad to do some joint training. “We don’t have any idea how to take a bomb suit off of somebody,” Phalen said. “If something like that happens in our facility — we end up treating a bomb technician — we'll know how to take their suit off.”
Phalen said hospitals should reconsider some of their operating procedures with regard to bombing incidents where the hospital is a target. “We let anybody in — you know, basically invite people to come in and be comfortable — because that’s what we want,” he said.
It’s that mindset that makes hospitals soft targets, he said. “If we were to have an explosion and have to set up an outside triage area, that triage area is pretty much widely known. Everybody knows where we are going to go. Like a fire drill, we’re going to go to the parking lot,” Phalen said. “So it doesn’t take much to put a bomb in the emergency room and then put a bunch of bombs out in the parking lot, wait until we get out there and then blow those up. A lot of other sectors of the government have figured that out and that’s part of their protocol. They’re going to sweep the emergency areas. They’re going to alternate the emergency areas or have armed people there so if there’s a sniper or something — and we just don’t think like that.”
The four-day program includes classroom instruction, tabletop exercises and labs on the bomb range where students observe the effects of different explosives. The first day covers an overview of the different kinds of explosive materials, how easily these materials can be obtained and how bombs work. The next day involves a discussion of which materials are favored by bomb-makers and the necessary shift in thinking toward considering bombs as weapons of mass destruction. The third day features a discussion of tactics for containing and approaching suicide bombers.
Two days of labs on the explosives range teach students to recognize bombs based on smells and other characteristics. The labs also cover what to be alert for and how much of an area needs to be sealed off based on the bomb detonated.
According to a university spokesman, the NMT has trained about 300,000 state and local first responders how to protect themselves and the public when responding to incidents involving explosives.