Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Blast class teaches first responders how to handle explosions

Thirty people standing on a windy Arapahoe County hillside covered their ears and fixed their eyes on a mocked-up passenger jet 250 yards away. Suddenly, two plumes of orange flame shot out of one of the seats, throwing debris 30 feet into the air. Seconds later a shock wave hit the onlookers followed almost immediately by the sound of an explosion.

The blast was part of a demonstration organized by Donald New, explosives program manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, part of DU’s Denver Research Institute.

A 12-ounce plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid — indistinguishable from water  — that had been tucked into the passenger seat pocket caused the destruction. Had the target been a real plane, it surely would have crashed.

All that remained of the passenger seat was a twisted metal frame. The steel plate representing the airplane’s floor was wrinkled like a piece of fabric and sported a three-inch hole. The steel panel representing the airplane’s bulkhead lay on the ground several feet away.

“Our main goal is to help state, local and federal law enforcement officials,” New says, referring to Introduction to Post-Blast Investigation, a three-to-four-day basic class for first responders. 

“We teach the basics of explosives, regulatory requirements, case studies and definitions. On the last day, we take them to the range and show them some shots,” he says.

New has conducted customized classes for firefighters, federal air marshals and airline baggage screeners. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is also interested in sending officers to class, New says.

Understanding the characteristics of explosives is particularly important for first responders, fire fighters, rescue workers, police and emergency medical technicians, New explains. For example, an Oklahoma City nurse trying to help people after the Murrah Federal Building bombing was killed by falling debris when she re-entered the building. Had she known more about avoiding explosive-caused structural damage, she might have been spared.

“If the first responders get hurt at a post-blast scene, it gets real hectic real fast,” New says. “We try to help first responders recognize explosives, understand explosives and more important, watch out for secondary devices.” 

Terrorists sometimes will detonate a small charge to lure first responders to the scene, and then set off a larger bomb, he explains. 

Denver Research Institute has a long history of ballistics and explosives research. Its Arapahoe County test range has been the site for experiments involving Patriot missile warheads, vulnerability analysis of Soviet tanks and the effects of simulated orbital debris on spacecraft.

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