- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

(This is one in a five-part series on steps ordinary citizens should take — and avoid — to prepare for several types of terrorist attack. The series originally ran on Sept. 6, 2002)

Although a great deal of attention has been given to possible terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, conventional explosives remain the most common weapon in terror attacks. Dealing effectively with a bombing relies largely on prior planning, experts told United Press International.

The most important advice is to remain aware of your surroundings and look for things that are out of place. There are no definitive red flags to watch for, said Randy Van Dyne, executive director of a personal safety training center at the University of Findlay in Ohio, but a good starting point is the current set of guidelines for spotting suspicious mail:

— Lopsided or oddly shaped packages;

— Protruding wires or pieces of metal or foil, and;

— Oily stains, crystals, discoloration or a strange odor.

"You should be aware of those things regardless of where you see that package," Van Dyne said. "Don't touch it or mess with it. In this day and age, no one's going to yell at you or think you're strange if you decide to call someone."

Emergency personnel will take such calls seriously, he said, and will take false alarms in stride given the current dangers of terrorism. Even the simplest steps people can take to be prepared for a bombing incident, such as looking for two exits in a public place, are useful he said.

"That's not only for terrorism, it could help you in case of a fire or any number of other reasons," Van Dyne said. "Some people get too carried away with thinking a terrorist isn't going to come to (a small town), but you've got the same issues in case of a fire."

Another useful step involves choosing locations that have a security guard of some kind at the entrance, according to Avi Zelba, a police chief superintendent in Israel. A person interested in setting off explosives will not want to limit the effects to the vicinity of a guard post and will go elsewhere, he told UPI.

Some bomb attacks have involved explosives being tossed through open car windows. As unlikely as such an incident might be, Van Dyne said, the simple act of keeping windows rolled up and doors locked is enough to thwart both a bombing and other, less-violent acts, such as purse snatching.

Overall preparation plans, such as those at workplaces and schools, would do well to follow California's efforts in earthquake response, Van Dyne said. Creating a "how to be safe" mindset will help people deal with any emergency situation, he said.

"You should know where you're going to go whenever you hear an explosion or the fire alarm goes off, and the only way you know is if you practice it," Van Dyne told UPI.

Employees are well within their rights to ask supervisors or even upper management to explain a company's evacuation plans and ask for practice drills, Van Dyne said. One of the reasons so many people escaped the World Trade Center towers, he said, was that the companies in those buildings held their drills.

If you do hear an explosion that sounds like a bomb, your first step should be to drop to the ground, Zelba said. This will lower your chances of being hit by shrapnel, he said.

The danger might not have passed, however, once the dust settles, according to Gil Kleiman, chief superintendent at Israel's National Police Headquarters. "Policemen know there can always be a second attack. You will have to take this into consideration," he said.

The possibility of additional bombs waiting for rescuers unfortunately limits what bystanders should do for victims, Van Dyne said.

"It's not wrong to go get resources and people who are (better) able to run in and help," Van Dyne said. "If you're in the middle of it, you should be getting out of it. If you can help someone else escape, fine. If you're going to try and stay there and treat (the wounded), you may be putting yourself at risk."

Emergency personnel need extensive training to be able to handle the stress of such a situation and keep an eye out for possible secondary devices, Van Dyne said. The signs of such devices are too numerous and subtle to pass along easily to the general public, he said.

The best thing to do is listen to the radio or TV for official information on areas affected by a bombing, several experts said. In Israel, senior police officers will seek out reporters with cell phones to disseminate key information as quickly as possible, Kleiman said.

Even though people might have skills emergency workers could find helpful, the time to offer assistance is not in the immediate aftermath of an incident, said Edward Plaugher, chief of the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia. Plaugher, who oversaw the response to the attack at the Pentagon, said firefighters and medics cannot have confidence in a stranger.

"You have to know their capabilities, so that you're not asking someone to do something they can't, or that you have something to do and don't know you have the resources to do it; those are the two cardinal sins," Plaugher told UPI. "If you want to (volunteer and) make a difference, you do it today for the incident tomorrow."

(UPI Photo # WAP2002081554 is available)

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