Save lives: Know what an IED looks like, report suspicious items to police

Most people would call the police if they saw a wooden box labeled “TNT” with an alarm clock and some wires attached to it, in a public place.
But would they call if they saw some unmarked crates with a cell phone and some wires in the trunk of a car?

The truth is, the second scenario is more likely to occur than the first, but less likely to be called in.

This is because many people don’t know what a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device looks like, and what to do if they believe they see one. They can also be afraid of the social consequences of calling in a false alarm.
Improvised explosive devices are just that: improvised. They can be made from many common items. 

An IED consists of three parts: the initiator, the main charge and a casing. The initiator tells the bomb to explode, and the casing causes the explosion to be more powerful.

Examples of initiators are garage door openers, cell phones, two-way radios, door bells, egg timers, alarm clocks and fuses. They may be attached to smaller explosives that cause the main charge to detonate, such as a single stick of TNT, a pipe bomb or a pressure cooker.

The main charge can weigh several hundred pounds and be made up of multiple cans of gasoline, tanks of propane or bags of fertilizer. The main charge will be placed in a container such as a steel pipe, a strong metal box or a concrete cast. All of this weight may cause the vehicle to sag low to the ground.
To identify a suspicious vehicle, look for any of the above-mentioned items placed together in the back of the vehicle, or for vehicles that seemed to be weighed down. Explosives in a car might be hidden in cardboard boxes or covered with a blanket.

If a person spots a vehicle with one or more of these characteristics, the first thing he or she should do is note the license plate number and vehicle type and move away from the scene. Use the general rule of thumb of moving at least 1,000 feet or three football fields away from a suspected VBIED.

Then, he or she should call the police or dial 911. Using a cell phone close to the IED may set it off, so it is important to make the phone call after getting away from the suspected vehicle.

Individuals should not be concerned that reporting something suspicious will turn out to be nothing. Police will determine if what an individual reports is an actual explosive device. Those who fear ridicule from family and friends should remember that reporting a suspected bomb could save their loved ones’ lives.

It is important for community members to make the phone call. Police rely on concerned citizens to report suspicious activity.  It was a concerned citizen who reported a VBIED in Times Square in New York City in 2010 and another citizen who reported a car bomb in London in 2007. These citizens saved the lives of many people, whether those people knew it or not. 
By paying attention to surroundings and calling to report anything that doesn’t seem right, more individuals can prevent tragedy.

Editor’s Note: Information for this article was provided by the OIF 4 smartcard and FM 3-21.75. For more information on IEDs, visit