No longer can we afford to dismiss the generic black bag sitting in the bushes near a bus stop, a mall entrance or a highway overpass. These calls have the potential for causing a major disturbance and personal injury. Emergency responders have a responsibility to assist in properly dismissing or disposing of the package. This should be accomplished safely for the communities benefit as well as ours. These efforts cannot be accomplished by one agency and will require a multi-agency response.
These calls typically begin by being identified by a member of the community or someone familiar with what is “normal” in the area. For one reason or another, the package has caused them to question its location and most often its lack of attention by anyone standing near it. Even if only for a moment, an abandoned package will cause concern to others nearby. Sometimes this may take longer than others, so it is not uncommon to interview a caller who states they have not witnessed anyone approach the bag in the last six or seven hours, calls such as these still need to be treated with legitimacy.
Before the Incident
Review and familiarize yourself with any procedures, guidelines, or response plans your agency or team may have in reference to suspicious packages. If these documents do not exist make an effort to begin developing them. It is important to consult with neighboring jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies to ensure the plan is realistic, and achievable.
It is extremely important to meet with all parties that will be working on the scene of such a call. This will include, but not limited to: local law enforcement, state law enforcement, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Civil Support teams, Bomb Squads, and Haz-Mat teams. If the package is on or in close proximity to a particular piece of property, such as a state building additional resources such as Protective Services could become involved.
Attempt to make contact with these organizations to see what capacity your organization will play. This is best accomplished during exercises and meetings where several groups are together for the same purpose. Individual meetings can then be established at a later date. There are many different scenarios that need to be addressed. If the call takes place on federal property the FBI will more than likely take the lead for the incident. If a state government building is involved, state law enforcement will most likely take the lead. This does not mean the local fire service or haz-mat response team will not be involved.
Participating in the drills and exercises will assist your agency in learning how they will be expected to function, and it will also allow you to explain any additional abilities. Regional meetings and special event meetings are also a good opportunity to get involved. Sometimes other agencies may not be aware of your agencies interest in being involved in such incidents.
If training is an issue there are many courses available to public safety personnel. The training courses offer a wealth of information, and are typically funded through grant programs. If travel is a concern due to staffing or budgets many of these courses can be brought into your local area. Many of the courses are offered through direct delivery which allows for several different local agencies to be involved in the same course without travel. This is a great opportunity to train together in your community.
Answering the Call
Upon the initial notification of a suspicious package it is important to anticipate it is an actual emergency. It is also important that once a knowledgeable person has arrived on scene and confirmed that a package exists the remainder of those key agencies need to be notified of the package. Remember these incidents will typically take an hour or longer to mitigate, so fostering good relationships between the agencies is important.
Treat every incident as if it were legitimate. If for nothing else it is good practice for when the real package is encountered. Just as in the case of the false alarm, if we are prepared and dressed out in our proper PPE for the 99 false alarms, we will be ready for the one that actually has something to it. The suspicious package call is no different.
Vehicle placement is extremely important when responding to these calls, especially if they are repeat calls to the same facility. Avoid utilizing the same locations to prevent possible suspects from learning behaviors we can easily develop. By changing up staging locations this makes it difficult for suspect reconnaissance, as well as complacency, on behalf of the responders.
Be sure to make contact with the caller from a safe distance. Do not get tied up in the incident and approach the people near the package. Have them clear the area and move to a safe location. Once in the safe location question the caller about the package and what they may have seen while standing near it. Have them describe the package and anything attached to it or near it. Ask if they saw anyone set it down or tamper with it. That person may still be in the immediate area.
Law enforcement or the bomb squad will need to rule out an explosive device. The fire service will typically stand by during this operation and support efforts where possible. In addition to suppression duties, the fire service may support the rehab efforts, or rescue team in the event of an emergency.
Following the Call
Once the call is complete and all the equipment is placed back in service, take a moment to meet with the other agencies. Identify any areas that need to addressed, and exchange information if possible. If needed, it may be productive to hold a brief hot wash following the incident. This is especially helpful if there are agencies present that are not normally involved, or actions were taken that are not the norm for that particular incident.
If anything is learned at the call make sure to pass it along to the other shifts so that they are aware of any issues, or lessons learned. This will assist them on future calls, especially if a repeat call to the same location is made. Any internal training deficiencies can also be addressed so that they can hopefully be improved upon.
The suspicious package call is becoming a regularly answered alarm in many communities, and as annoying as they can be, it is important to answer them in the same vigilant manner every time. Be sure to address each call with the suspicion that it is not a hoax or a good intent call. If it is responded to as a true emergency and the suspicious package turns out to be confirmed then no one should be caught off guard or surprised.
Jason Krusen is a Captain on Haz- Mat 1 with the Columbia Fire Department in South Carolina with over 18 years of experience. He serves as the President on the Board of Directors for the Fire Smoke Coalition. He has an Associate’s Degree in Fire Service Administration. Jason is a Planning Manager with State Urban Search and Rescue Team, SC-TF1, a Logistics Manager for the Type II Collapse Search & Rescue Regional Response in Columbia, and a Planning Manager for the Type III Midlands Region IMT. Jason is also the Project Manager and Instructor for E-Med Training Services, LLC.