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Departments : The Winning Edge

Suspicious Packages and Booby Traps

First responders need to tread lightly and keep their hands off when dealing with potential bombs.

May 10, 2011  |  by Paul R. Laska


  • 1992 Florida—Trooper Jimmy Fulford died while conducting an inventory search of a vehicle following a traffic arrest on I-10. Fulford may have suspected the gift-wrapped package of being in-transit drugs, not a bomb being delivered by ignorant drug runners to eliminate a loose end.
  • 2008 Woodburn, Oregon—Senior Trooper William Hakim and Capt. Tom Tennant of the Woodburn Police Department were killed by a bomb placed at a bank.
  • 2009 Hemet, CaliforniaPolice are targeted by bombs, booby traps, arson, and gunfire.

What these incidents show is that the patrol officer is very often the tip of the spear dealing with explosive devices. Not as a responder to a bomb threat or suspicious item but as a primary or unintended target, confronting an unexpected, hidden threat.

Every good officer thinks the worst when approaching a traffic stop, disturbance, or domestic. Since the 1930s we have known that Granny may be Ma Barker. Yet the same level of awareness that keeps officers safe from physical assaults is overlooked when considering explosives and related threats.

There are hundreds of stories of officers conducting a search and thinking a container of drugs has been located only to discover pipe bombs. With infernal machines, as with guns, knives, and physical assaults, an awareness, a suspicious mind, a professional paranoia, are the first steps toward survival.

Look Don't Touch

Bomb threat search training emphasizes using your eyes and ears, and not hands, to conduct a search. Bombs are often triggered by action, perhaps because the item is booby-trapped, perhaps because the device has malfunctioned.

Crime scene response emphasizes an awareness of your feet and hands. This is also good advice for dealing with bombs. Don't let your hands or feet go places without visually inspecting them first. Use your flashlight before moving items.

Also, you can use resources and tools to give you an indication of what is really inside a suspicious package. For example, if you suspect a package contains drugs, call for a drug detection K-9. If the dog does not alert, throw a warning flag and call for a bomb dog. Is an explosives detection dog reasonably available? If not, and if your trained senses tell you the package is suspicious, do not molest it. Call the bomb disposal unit that provides your agency support.

Use your eyes not your hands. The fact that something is not right should raise caution flags. That unusual hole could be a video camera, or could be an infrared trigger, so give it a wide berth. Use your ears to pinpoint sounds and attempt to identify and eliminate them.

Watch Your Step

Bombs are often triggered by the vicitim's footfall. Mats, loose papers, and disturbed grass are potential signs of a pressure switch.

You also have to be aware of tripwires. Extend your collapsible baton, hang a four-foot length of crime scene tape from the end, and let it walk ahead, where it will drape over any hidden wires. If your kit includes a 36-inch riot baton, use that instead.

Particularly dangerous is the "tanglefoot" style of tripwire. A tanglefoot is a loose tripwire that lies on the ground and is designed to get tangled about a walker's feet. If you suspect a tanglefoot, look hard for it. Use your light. If you carry an alternate color light (many tactical lights include an ultraviolet, blue, or red source) switch between colors. Different materials react differently under different types and colors of light.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

AIC @ 5/10/2011 9:44 AM

Several SWAT teams, patrol officers and soldiers deployed overseas have been using a product called wire web which is designed for rapid deployment through tripwire hazards. I carry a can on my rig as well as a few in my car. It's just a high tech silly string but it has some key upgrades over the party store stuff. Check it out

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