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The Hazards of Homemade Explosives

Homemade explosives present a huge threat to you and the people you serve.

June 11, 2012  |  by Ronnie Garrett

Sachtleben also encourages adding educators such as chemistry teachers to the mix. "Schools are often a source for chemicals," he says. "Kids may steal classroom chemicals and repurpose them for their own needs."

Building awareness among parents is also important. "Parents know what belongs in their home," Sachtleben says. "If something doesn't smell right or kids are playing around with things they shouldn't, they need to understand and take action so their kids don’t hurt themselves or anyone else."

Local police departments can set up training days to advise the business community and other key community individuals of the items explosives experimenters may purchase in bulk and share other signs to look for such as chemical burns on the hands and wrists. "We want to educate store owners," Sachtleben says. "If you own a pool supply store, for example, you sell chemicals that can be used to make explosives. You want store owners to know this so they can be more attentive to who is buying these things and pick up the phone and call police when it seems suspicious."

But while knowledge is power, Sachtleben warns that police walk a fine line between building awareness and creating problems. "In community education, we want to emphasize that these are very hazardous materials and they don't react well with each other," he says.

Be Prepared

Signs of a bomb-manufacturing site can often be readily seen. In regard to chemicals, officers might see nitric acid, sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, potassium chlorate, potassium perchlorate, acetone, hexamine, citric acid, ammonium nitrate, urea, nitromethane, magnesium, and aluminum. There may be grinders (coffee grinder, mortars and pestles, etc.), coffee filters, mixers, stirrers, ice baths, glassware, and hot plates used in the manufacturing process.

"Low explosives require some kind of confinement to blow up, so on-scene you might see pipes. You might see hydrogen peroxide bottles or pool sanitation chemicals lying around. There might be liquid boiling on the stove," Jermain says.

Back Off

When these signs are noted, responding officers should keep their distance and wait for bomb technicians to arrive. "Separate yourself from the material. Don't pick it up or handle it," says Sachtleben. “A lot of these materials are static sensitive so if you’re wearing a nylon windbreaker, you could generate static electricity and set it off. I cannot emphasize enough the importance for first responders to leave it alone, isolate it, evacuate the area, and get a safe distance away."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Bombing Prevention has long distributed copies of the Bomb Threat Stand-off Card to first responders. This laminated card enables officers to quickly evaluate how to keep civilians and responders safe during the initial incident investigation and response, says Christine Lee, DHS program manager.

Today they've taken that technology to the smartphone and for a relatively low cost police departments can purchase the First Responder Support Tool (FIRST) Bomb Response for iPhones, iPads, Android phones, and Windows PCs. The application is combined with the commercially available HAZMAT Evac to help first responders address improvised explosives situations and HAZMAT spills. FIRST Bomb Response provides standoff distances, allows points of interest queries to pinpoint areas of concern, and more to help first responders safely evacuate and secure an area.

Numerous portable instruments can also help first responders determine response. The ATF utilizes ThermoScientific's Raman First Defender and FTIR TruDefender to identify explosives in the field. Field Forensics also offers portable instruments that can help make an explosives ID. "These tools are simple to use by the average police officer," Jermain says, noting departments can often write a grant to purchase them.

And if local law enforcement doesn’t have these tools in their kit, odds are the fire department does. "Once you add them or find them in your community, officers want to use all these tools and know how they work and know their limitations," says Sachtleben. "You don't want the first time you use them to be on a real call."

Improvised Explosives Training

ATF: Departments can request formal explosives training at the ATF Website. The training is taught by ATF special agents, bomb technicians, and explosive chemists and is available to police officers, even if they are not bomb technicians.

Oklahoma State University: The Center for Improvised Explosives Research and Training at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences offers training on improvised explosives for bomb technicians. This training provides an overview of the materials used to manufacture homemade explosives and demonstrates the threat posed by improvised explosives through classroom lectures, laboratory experiments, and demonstrations on an explosives range.

Ronnie Garrett owns and operates Garrett & Co. Studios, a Fort Atkinson, Wis., company providing editorial, photography, and graphic design services.


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