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Fools Rush In

In a nuclear, biological, or chemical event, responding before you know what’s happening can get you dead.

September 01, 2002  |  by POLICE Staff

As you round the corner responding to an "unknown disturbance" at the city's premier retail center, the sense you've developed through years of patrol experience starts tingling. This is no ordinary disturbance. Appearing like early morning mist in the distance-although it's noon by the clock on your car stereo-is a low fog.

You and your partner drive by the entrance, and you remark that the mall seems unusually empty. It should be cluttered with professionals on their lunch breaks, loud teens who've ditched school, and the ever-present elderly power walkers; yet the front walk is eerily quiet.

Then you see them, casualties. Many of them, grotesquely motionless, obscured by the low hanging mist. Before you can respond, your eyes draw to pinpoints, and you smell pepper with a hint of garlic. You become aware of your partner beginning to convulse uncontrollably as your own body spasms. The last thing you recall hearing as your cruiser slams into a fire hydrant is the siren of the backup car on the shift. You know that it's sure to be followed by the supervisor and a reserve car or two. But you can't warn them.

Our world has changed. And we, as law enforcement officers, must evolve our mindset and add some tactics to our toolboxes to survive this ugly new reality.

The one thing that unites all true responders is the ingrained need to run to a situation, jump in with both feet, and begin to restore order to chaos. At the risk of sounding callous, this is the very first thing we are going to have to change.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we malfeasantly delay aid to the injured. However, for any situation that may involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we have to adopt a stance of standoff assessment and immediate isolation of the incident. This isn't a completely foreign idea to us; these days no cop enters a bank on an alarm call without doing a standoff assessment.

Mass Casualties

The primary goal of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear blast attack is to kill, injure, or terrorize a large number of people. Prime targets for such an attack are public areas, activity hubs, critical infrastructure, culturally significant places, and special events.

So ideally any call regarding an "unknown disturbance" at a shopping area, recreational facility, governmental building, major roadway junction, public utility, concert, political rally, or religious gathering should be treated initially as a stand-off assessment call. And any call to these types of facilities and events should be immediately upgraded to a stand-off incident if it includes any of the following characteristics:

  • There has been a local threat or national warning that pertains to this call.
  • There are multiple victims.
  • Responders or initial complainants have fallen ill or been overcome by fumes or unknown substances.
  • The incident was preceded by an explosion or unusual release.
  • Persons detained at the scene or nearby have a history of related offenses or calls (bomb threats, assaults, etc.), or links to known terrorist groups.

Perhaps the wisest course we can follow is to treat all calls as having the potential of being a WMD incident, look for the indicators, and upgrade or downgrade as the situation warrants. This policy will require dispatchers to learn as much about an incident as they can before sending a unit to the scene.

Because it's so easy for anyone to monitor police communications, your agency should come up with a code word, something like your officer duress code word, to alert responding officers to the presence of WMD indicators. In addition, many agencies routinely provide further information to officers in the field via alphanumeric paging and two-way messaging devices. These systems are much more difficult to monitor than police radio channels.

Agents of Destruction

Upon arrival to the general area of the call, we need to be alert for further indications that a terrorist event has taken place. As these vary by agent, a brief overview of WMD technology is appropriate.

When exposed to chemical weapons, decontamination by water is critical to your survival.

All WMD agents are designed to disrupt the normal functioning of living beings. Biological agents pervert natural viruses and bacteria to make them more contagious and intensify their symptoms. Chemical agents damage tissues, inhibit the body's ability to process oxygen, or overload the nervous system, interfering with the brain's ability to control respiration and cardiac function. Radiological agents (such as the infamous "dirty bomb") cause short-term damage to external tissue and long-term damage to internal tissue. Finally, conventional, incendiary, and nuclear yield explosive devices inflict immediate, permanent, devastating trauma.

While there are many of these witches' brews, we can simplify things substantially by classifying these agents in terms of how rapidly they act. This translates into two broad, descriptive categories: immediate effect agents and delayed effect agents. Immediate effect agents include conventional explosive devices, incendiary devices, nuclear blast weapons, and chemical agents. Delayed effect agents include biological agents and radiological agents.

Indications that you are in an immediate effect WMD incident will be more obvious the further you venture into the affected area. Unfortunately, lethality increases exponentially as you near the point of origin. This means the closer you go to the victims, the more incapacitated you become.

Consequently, the key to being a first responder to a WMD event is assessing the situation without falling victim to its effect. Experts stress that you should look for indicators at a distance, including:

  • Dead animals, pets, wild birds, even crickets and grasshoppers.
  • Burnt or discolored foliage.
  • Darkened or discolored ground.
  • Oily looking film or splotches.

Keeping in mind the above indicators, both immediate- and delayed-effect agents exhibit the following indicators:

  • Fog, mist, dust clouds, or smoke.
  • Objects that appear to be emitting fog, mist, dust clouds, or smoke.
  • Debris fields.
  • What appears to be an explosion or extinguished fire that resulted in minimal structural damage, which could be evidence of gas, biological, or radiological attack.
  • Massive structural damage, which could be evidence of a conventional or even low-yield nuclear blast.
  • Clusters of injured, unconscious, or dead people.

Also, just because a call doesn't include reports of mass casualties or burning buildings, don't assume that it's routine. Even if the incident you are responding to is as mundane as a two-vehicle traffic accident. You could find indicators that what you are actually dealing with is accidental deployment of a terrorist weapon that was ruptured by the collision.

And don't discount an item just because it isn't a military-style WMD agent. Industrial chemicals can be weaponized. For example, the gaseous form of chlorine in use at many water treatment plants and community swimming pools as a disinfectant was once the chief component in the world's most feared weapon, mustard gas.


Should you determine that you have stumbled into a chemical, biological, or radiological incident, don't panic. Despite what you've heard, you can survive.

To be killed by a chemical agent, you have to be exposed to a certain amount for a certain duration. This is referred to as the concentration of an agent that is Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH). As you get further from the point of origin, the concentration diminishes, eventually to below the IDLH. So an unprotected person who runs rapidly through an affected area can get the same dose as someone who stands at the edge of that area for a longer period of time.

CONTINUED: Fools Rush In «   Page 1 of 2   »

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