IEDs, RDDs, and Other Improvised Hazards

As a result of the guerrilla war in Iraq the IED, or improvised explosive device, has moved from the military and law-enforcement lexicon into the common vocabulary of Americans. An IED is basically a homemade bomb often used as a booby trap and/or detonated by a timer. It is not designed as a weapon per se, in other words. The definition of IED is independent of its size, the source or types of materials used to build it, and/or the delivery strategy employed, and would include a vest filled with five pounds of C4 explosives or a rental truck packed with diesel and fertilizer or artillery shells strung along a roadway. 

The addition of radioactive materials to an IED creates a radiological dispersion device (RDD), the effects of which should not be confused with a nuclear explosion. The main difference is the energy source for the explosion. In a nuclear detonation the energy comes from an atomic chain reaction, whereas the RDD receives its energy from conventional explosives. The Residual Effects of Fear The use of an RDD makes sense, in fact, only in the context of a terrorist action. Most IEDs are used primarily for anti-personnel/anti-vehicle purposes; in contrast, the RDD is aimed primarily at denying the use of territory or a specific facility. The radioactive contamination from an RDD is distributed not only by the force of the explosion but also, inadvertently, by the actions of victims and rescuers. 

Only a small amount of radioactive material is needed for an RDD to be effective – just enough to get noticed by detection equipment will accomplish the goal of spreading fear. By contaminating the area The radioactive contamination from an RDD is distributed not only by the force of the explosion but also, inadvertently, by the actions of victims and rescuers. around an explosion with radioactive materials the terrorist uses the public’s own lack of understanding of radiation, and the fear that results from the explosion, to deny the use of that area even after decontamination is complete. To combat the psychological and propaganda as well as the actual destructive effects of an RDD, line-level resources must be equipped to detect radiation, and the detection capability must be deep enough that it would not require a special call to higher authorities to get detection resources on the scene. In addition, the scene of every explosion should be checked for radiation, and there must be a realistic plan in place to react to the discovery of radiation. 

Secondary Devices a Primary Danger The typical injuries caused by an IED are similar to those caused by any other explosion; in fact, for the first responder, the primary difference between an IED and any other explosion is, frequently if not always, the risk caused by secondary devices – which might simply be one or more other IEDs positioned near the first IED, and triggered separately. What is believed to have been the first use of a secondary device in a terrorist attack in the United States occurred in the 1997 bombing of an abortion clinic in Atlanta, Georgia. The threat posed by the secondary device is aimed primarily against the first responders on the scene, and for that reason all first responders not only must be actively involved in scene safety but also conscious at all times that any emergency response to an incident in which an explosion has occurred carries the risk of a secondary explosion being set off. 

In other words, all responders must be constantly aware of their surroundings, recognize that they cannot afford the luxury of being too shy to report something – anything – out of the ordinary, and must take whatever immediate and appropriate actions are needed to protect not only responders but also any bystanders in the vicinity.  In short, the primary responsibility of the first responder is to return home safely.

Links for Later Use IED General 

Human Cost of IED 

Secondary Devices RDD

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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