Fools Rush In

Then you see them, casualties. Many of them, grotesquely motionless, obscured by the low hanging mist.

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.

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Therefore, if you inadvertently enter a chemical attack zone and haven't become incapacitated, call it in, but get moving. While you're waiting for the radio to clear so you can call for help (every department has a channel hog), backpedal rapidly. There is no good answer as to how far; it depends on the device payload, net agent weight, dispersal mechanism and pattern, wind velocity, terrain features, and many other factors. But put some distance, terrain features, or a combination between you and the scene. HazMat specialists have a saying, "Uphill, Upwind, and Away." These are all very good places to be in a chemical attack.

Once you get out of the affected area decontaminate yourself. Keep in mind that most agents can kill in a concentration below your threshold ability to sense them, so don't assume you're OK just because you can't see or smell anything. Find a water source, get naked, and wash. Pay particular attention to your nose and mouth; in fact, start with these orifices, and don't allow runoff from other areas to recontaminate them.

Decontamination by water rinsing is also critical to survival in radiological attacks such as the much-hyped "dirty bomb," which uses a core of conventional explosives to disperse an outer layer of radioactive substances. Except in cases of massive exposure, radioactive substances are rarely fatal, unless they are ingested or breathed in. In fact, two of the four types of radiation, alpha and beta, cannot penetrate your clothing and skin to harm your internal organs.

Crude jokes aside, one of the keys to your survival in a WMD attack is that you are a sealed bag. If you can keep contaminants out of your nose and mouth, then you stand a good chance of staying alive.

However, don't bet your life on it. Many toxic agents can be absorbed through the skin. This is why you need to wash immediately after exposure, even if it means an embarrassing zero-privacy shower. Washing off the contaminants limits the dosage. So find a source of water and rinse thoroughly. Yes, foams and solutions capable of neutralizing a broad spectrum of agents have been developed, but their use is generally limited to the military, and it will be some time before they start popping up in patrol cars. In contrast, water is in every quickie mart, and in the car trunks of savvy patrol officers.

Crowd Control

Immediately following a WMD event, you will need rapid officer saturation of the surrounding area. Crowd control is critical: you need to keep clean people out and contaminated people in. And you will have to defend an imaginary barrier called the "Contamination Control Line," until enough resources can arrive with the proper equipment to safely enter the scene, and then decon and triage the victims.

While this may appear cruel, it's necessary. Some of these weapons, biological agents in particular, have the ability to spread very, very easily and reproduce. Consider this: one couple at a biological incident bulldogs their way through the Contamination Control Line, because they don't realize that it takes many hours to exhibit symptoms, and besides, they are late for a flight. They hop a plane, and now everybody on the plane is both infected and carriers. Everybody at both airports potentially is infected. Because the airplane has a closed air circulation system, subsequent flights are potentially affected.

So cruel or not, make everybody stay put. Consider creating a marshaling area, and remotely direct them there. And while you are standing there holding the line, be very aware of suspicious objects and packages. A common tactic in Ireland, now being seen more frequently in the Middle East and in North America, is to detonate a small device to draw rescuers, and then remotely detonate a much larger device or devices in the logical places that responding rescuers would set up to help the victims of the earlier attack.

Remember, if you should find something that raises your suspicion, your safest protocol is to mark the item without disturbing it, fall back to another area, and notify dispatch. Attempting to move the item, or placing something around or over it to lessen its effects may also activate it. This also applies to any unfunctioned WMD device that you may be called to investigate. While some devices appear deceptively simple, it just isn't worth your life trying to avert it from functioning as intended.

However, things you could consider doing might include: having maintenance personnel shut down nonessential heating, ventilation and cooling, or closing pathways into the area where you found the device. Remember though that anything you disturb may also be the trigger for the device.

Once the civilians are evacuated from the area, all personnel should retreat to a safer position. Be sure that you don't prop open any doors or otherwise compromise containment as you leave.

Are You Ready?

I know what you're thinking: there's no way you would roll to a weapons of mass destruction scene if you couldn't dress out in one of those moonsuits and firefighter's air packs. I can appreciate how you feel, which is why we must demand adequate training and safety gear for chemical and biological attacks.

A brief survey of agencies around the United States reveals varying degrees of deficiency from agency to agency, from nearly adequate in major metropolitan agencies, to woeful in the rural departments.

While agencies are understandably reticent to publically divulge actual levels of preparedness and training, citing persistent intelligence-gathering efforts by the bad guys, an unclassified survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and DuPont shows that of 600 mayors polled, only 6 percent were very satisfied that they had adequately equipped their responders, and 8 percent felt very satisfied that they were able to train their personnel. A full 86 percent responded negatively when asked if they felt they had adequate supplies of personal protective equipment to respond to a WMD incident.

The minimum equipment every police officer in the nation should possess is an Individual Response Kit consisting of a full-face respirator with an NBC-rated filter, level C vapor-impermeable garment with hood and booties, and overboots and gloves made of butyl rubber or similar.

However, purchasing officers beware. As they do when presented with the opportunities afforded by public hysteria, many unscrupulous vendors are flooding the market with substandard items that range from the marginally unsuitable to the absolutely non-functioning. Be sure that what you are purchasing lives up to its claims; do your homework.

Training minimally should consist of basic training in awareness, response, and proper utilization of personal protective equipment. This could be integrated into the annual in-service training, as some agencies are now doing.

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons are disseminated much the same as chemical weapons. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, persons affected by biological weapons will not exhibit symptoms until after the point where medication is no longer effective. There are few bio weapon detection devices, and none of them will fit in a patrol car trunk.

Biological weapons fall into two categories.

Pathogens-are disease-producing microorganisms, such as bacteria, mycoplasma, rickettsia, fungi, or viruses. Pathogens are either naturally occurring or altered by random mutation or recombinant (DNA) techniques.

Toxins-are poisons naturally produced through the metabolic activities of living organisms such as proteins, polypeptides, and alkaloids. These come from microorganisms and various plants and animals.

Biological Weapons can be disseminated by devices as complicated as remote controlled spray tanks, or as simple as infected fleas.

The following is a quick look at some of the most common bio weapons. There are many others.

Anthrax-is a spore-forming bacteria that primarily attacks sheep and cattle. When humans inhale enough of the tiny anthrax spores, flu-like symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 60 days after exposure. Once symptoms appear, breathing worsens and fever increases until death. However, skin-only contact is not usually lethal.

Botulism ( Botulinum Toxin )-is not a living organism, but the poisonous excretions of the Clostridium Botulinum bacteria. Symptoms begin around 24 to 36 hours post exposure, but can take several days. Infected persons experience generalized weakness, dizziness, dry mouth, diarrhea, and progress to respiratory failure and death.

Brucellosis-is an organism that is very susceptible to antibiotics. Exposure brings about  joint and muscle pain, sweats, and listlessness-but only after an incubation period of several weeks.

Plague-is a bacteria that rapidly brings about death, some in less than 48 hours after the initial symptoms of fever, chills, headache, and rapid heartbeat.

Smallpox-is the most feared of all bio weapons. With an Incubation period from seven to 16 days, smallpox begins as small blisters (like chickenpox) on the face, chest, and hands. The blisters get larger with time. Symptoms include high fever and secondary infections. Approximately 35 percent of non-immunized smallpox victims will die from the disease.

Types of Radiation

  • Alpha radiation only travels a few centimeters and cannot penetrate a piece of paper.
  • Beta radiation travels farther than Alpha, but can be stopped with layers of clothing. Caution: Beta radiation inflicts serious burns on uncovered tissue.
  • X-Ray and Gamma radiation are very powerful and can only be stopped by dense materials such as lead and dirt.
  • The energy of all radioactive items can be diminished with distance in lieu of shielding. Also, the amount of radiation present diminishes with time.

Determining which forms of radiation the item is emitting requires specialized equipment and some training. However, the primary danger from most radiation incidents is from inhalation or ingestion.

Shawn Hughes is a certified police officer in Tennessee with 12 years of experience and a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians & Investigators. He also serves as a WMD subject specialist for various police consultancies and publishers.

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