Drugs laboratory or bomb laboratory?


Times are changing and threats involving explosives are more potent than ever.

Public authorities have long been aware of the presence of homemade explosives (HMEs). The knowledge of how to construct HMEs has been widely distributed by anarchist organizations and has thus been known to criminals and terrorists long before the invention of the Internet. Though homemade explosives have always embodied danger, they were previously only found in small quantities in the Netherlands. More often than not such detonative offences involved an adolescent chemistry student unable to resist the temptation of manufacturing his very own bomb.

The technology of manufacturing HMEs was picked up by known terrorist organizations which in their turn informed their supporters of this fairly easy and rather ideal way of committing attacks. Recently, however, it appears that the practice no longer limits itself to small quantities. Terrorists now produce HMEs in vast quantities, something a rational person would never think of doing due to the very high risks involved in the manufacturing.

The unexpected discovery of large quantities of reactive substances such as Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) or Hexamethylene triple oxide diamine (HMTD) is now a risk that every first responder (police units and fire brigades) could face. Because it is very difficult for a first responder to recognize the difference between a bomb laboratory and a drug laboratory, a new problem arises; correctly identifying the lab in question. This remains the problem of the first responder and therefore he or she must be able to make the correct assessment.

Drug laboratories are common in the Netherlands and constitute a problem in themselves. But the arrival and the additional risks of the so-called bomb laboratories make for an “explosive” situation. These laboratories need to be dismantled differently and the dismantling itself  carries a greater risk. Additionally, terrorists are also active in the drug trade. Supposedly, the proceeds go toward financing their ideals. So there is now a valid risk of encountering combined laboratories in which both drugs and explosive devices are being manufactured, an encounter which can literally throw the first responder off the scent. In the Netherlands there are law enforcement units that are specialized in recognizing and dismantling these drug labs. More than anyone, these units acknowledge the danger of a “drug lab” versus a “bomb lab”.

But before the skilled specialists arrive on the scene, a lot could potentially go wrong. This threat is currently ignored, but how could one reduce this risk, or better still, prevent it? Is it possible to make every first responder an expert in the field of HMEs in addition to the general knowledge they already possess in the field of CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense)?

The CBRN defense is divided among various organizations and institutions in the Netherlands. Search and Risk Assessment is assigned to the National Police as well as the Royal Military Police. Disposal and defusing is a task for the Dutch Defense. In addition, there is collaboration between the fire brigade, the Advisor Hazardous Substances (AGS) and other services, such as the Dutch Forensic Institute (NFI).

When it comes to the question “bomb lab or drug lab”, one adheres to the rules and instructions laid down by the Protocol Suspicious Objects (PVO). The National Police has assigned this task to the Team Leader Explosives Safety (TEV).This executive team leader works according to the PVO. The reporting team leaders (TEVs) are divided amongst the 10 police units in the Netherlands and are assigned the task of assessing the risks of CBRN and providing police colleagues with a mandatory advice. They also act as a liaison for the other services involved.

The executive team leader is available 24/7 and has to be at the scene of an incident quickly in order to provide the emergency services with the proper assistance and advice. Moreover, the executive team leader will provide information sessions and is precautionary present at large-scale incidents where a CBRN threat is present.

The current threat assessment along with former attacks have rightfully ensured caution to arise and  as a result any reported incident is rapidly scaled up whenever a discovery is made of suspicious objects. This could lead to a potential unsafe situation being misread and could cause unnecessary anxiety amongst the population, a side effect which no one wants. In a situation such as this, the TEV has an important role to play. The government strives to make the population feel safe and will do everything to guarantee it. Since the TEV has been given the necessary training and has gathered the required knowledge on the subject of CBRN, he is capable of scaling down a reported risk situations rather than scaling it up 90 percent of the time.

Due to the current threat assessment, the first responder is more likely to scale up. Scaling down, on the other hand, ensures that no unnecessary fear arises among the population. These days, that is important. The problem of undue up scaling can be prevented by providing the first responder with basic knowledge and, more importantly, the existence of the PVO and the TEV. The TEV has the required knowledge to ensure the correct decisions are made and the proper authorities deployed.

Summing up, the TEV is also crucial when arriving at the bomb laboratory since he aids in correctly assessing a possible danger. The first responder already possess the basic knowledge and the follow-up of the PVO has resulted in the Team Leader Explosives Safety already consulting with the first responder during an incident and guiding him throughout that incident. As mentioned earlier, in most cases a substantiated advice will be given to scale down. For example, a general commander can be advised by a TEV during events and incidents, which can help the general commander to make the correct decisions, for example “evacuate versus not evacuate.”