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Flashpoint: Gremlins on the ground – a hypothetical terror plot

Gremlins on the ground - a hypothetical terror plot

December 6, 2007
By Peter Sells

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peter-sellsThe
news as I write this is all about the terrorist plot that was foiled in
London, where it appears that there were several vehicles outfitted
with propane cylinders, gasoline and nails. All these items are readily
available in our Western retail society. Anyone with rudimentary
workshop skills could turn an old car into a bomb powerful enough to
kill dozens or even hundreds of people. All it takes is the will to do
so and a perverted system of values that convinces you that mass murder
is a righteous act. So, if you can, place yourself in a hypothetical
mindset in which you are trying to inflict maximum damage with a car
bomb and let's see if we can figure out how to gain an advantage.

The
first car that was found was a luxury sedan parked outside a trendy
nightclub. That makes sense – an upscale vehicle in an upscale location
would not look out of place. The bomber would simply have to wait until
the right time to detonate, perhaps when the club closes and people are
streaming out onto the street.

The scene where the second
vehicle was located was only briefly shown in the report I saw, but it
looked to me like a white van, possibly an ambulance. I have to stress
that I am writing this while the news is still breaking and the vehicle
I saw may not have been an ambulance. But let's stay with our
hypothetical exercise and figure out how to get a nice big vehicle
parked anywhere we choose. Our ideal vehicle would be configured with a
large cargo area and still have a reasonably small wheelbase to allow
us to place it wherever we want. It would also have an outward
appearance that would allow it to not seem out of place in our targeted
location. What have I just described? Possibly, an ambulance?

An
ambulance, or any emergency vehicle for that matter, could legitimately
be in any location at any time without drawing attention. I'm focusing
on using an ambulance in this argument because it would be easier to
drive than a fire apparatus and easier to park in just the right place.
But how easy would it be for me to get my hands on an ambulance? First
of all, my vehicle doesn't have to be an ambulance as long as it looks
like an ambulance. Second, I could just go buy an ambulance. Just like
that. Old Ambulances are disposed of through a public auction and after
that they are on the open market just like a '75 Gremlin.

Most
current ambulances are of a "Type 3" configuration, a modular
construction with a large box on a truck chassis. Maybe I'm showing my
age but my mental picture of an ambulance is the distinctive "Type 2",
which looks like a full-sized van (ie; Ford Econoline) with a roughly
trapezoidal extension on top. To most people, an ambulance is an
ambulance, and they all look the same. And therein lies the point. If I
were to take an old Type 2, give it a fresh coat of white paint and
some bogus service markings, re-wire some flashing lights, place a
couple of stereo speakers in the roof extension and blast out a
recorded siren sound (easily available online as a wave file or mp3),
it would look the same as an ambulance to most people.

A
vehicle bomb the size of a Type 2 ambulance could affect a lethal blast
radius of 60 metres with a falling glass hazard radius of over 800
metres. To get this information I Googled "car bomb evacuation
distance." The most promising link was to the website of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in the U.S. However, all I was able
to obtain on that site was a message stating that the "ATF Vehicle Bomb
and Explosion Hazard Evacuation Distance Tables" were only available to
public safety organizations. Now that I knew the name of the document I
needed, I Googled "ATF Vehicle Bomb and Explosion Hazard Evacuation
Distance Tables" and, lo and behold, there it was on each of the next
four websites returned by the search engine.

So,
hypothetically, I used accessible information and materials available
through retail stores to convert a legally obtained ex-ambulance into a
weapon capable of devastating a city block. It really doesn't matter
what my motivation is. Timothy McVeigh's cowardly act was spectacularly
effective. His device was larger than what I have described above, but
just substitute "old fire truck" for "old ambulance" and you have
enough power to bring down a building.

I'm not trying to rain on
the parades of the collectors of old fire trucks. But some things have
changed. Maybe we should be selling our old fire trucks and ambulances
one pound at a time as paperweights.

(Gremlins are folkloric
creatures, commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented
with a specific interest in aircraft. Their origin is found in myths
among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft.)

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire
service management and professional development across North America
and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto
and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory
councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire
Engineers Canada Branch.
 


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