BY ED STARK & CHARLES O’CONNOR
As we all should know, breaching with explosives is not just a matter of putting holes in buildings, since there are limitless ways of using energetic materials to open or break things-often in spectacular ways. It’s safe to say that almost anybody with explosives can easily make a door vanish into thin air (“Look … nothing up my sleeve.”) or remove the side of a building (and in the process, probably the neighboring building as well).
However, performing breaching with the surgical skill that allows a team safe access into a structure for rapid engagement of a threat, while reducing potential injury to anyone in the vicinity (including those inside the breached target), and unnecessary property damage, is the difference between an explosive breacher, and someone who is merely using energetic materials to help resolve a critical incident. An explosive breacher is required in some situations. Other times the use of a breacher depends on where you work and whether or not the terms “criminal negligence,” “lawsuit” and “wrongful death” are recognized in your jurisdiction.
Any of you that have endured listening to us rant on the importance of the explosive breacher being a subject matter expert know that to being able to articulate yourself as that expert requires a thorough knowledge of the discipline, and understanding certain realities that are often misinterpreted, or have been ignored by other members of this community.
The number of explosive breeches an agency had under its belt does not necessarily equate to level of expertise. Proficiency belongs to the teams that understand the release of energy produced and those that collect legit load data in real environments on actual structures.
As important as it is to quickly get into your objective, you have to survive the process (and potential aftermath) to truly succeed with your program and guarantee its longevity.
While the primary objective is to save lives and provide a successful resolution to a critical incident, the operators also need to be able to articulate everything they do, why they do it, and where the data came from (if they need to reference it). If we don’t consider all the potential impact areas that explosive breaching may have on our agencies, our programs and ourselves, we are shooting in the dark and hoping that we won’t ever be called on to answer some tough questions. The potentially negative impact areas following a critical incident where explosive breaching was performed include:
- Loss of your explosive breaching program and the future use of this skill
- Loss of conviction of the suspects in any criminal investigation of the events that led to the crisis entry
- Agency and/or personal liability
- Regulatory investigation and personal/agency fines (ex- plosive regulatory/compliance issues)
- Loss of employment (You’re FIRED!)
- Loss of freedom (You’re fired and were criminally negligent when you did that)
- Judicial review, which affects the entire breaching community, and may restrict its use of this tactic as well.
Every person using an explosive breaching charge is potentially subject to examination (and cross examination) as an expert, because they are expected to be one. Depending on the situation (criminal, civil or agency review), you may also expect that your knowledge will be challenged by other explosive experts brought in to discredit your training and tactics. These experts may have a significant background that will impress people who don’t know any better, regardless of their experience with contemporary explosive breaching tactics or techniques. We’ve been approached (and we’ve re- fused) on more than one occasion to act as an expert witness for the defense in a criminal case (and for a hefty paycheck at that). And while most people from our ranks wouldn’t sell themselves out as expert mercenaries to anybody dangling a nice monetary reward, there are plenty of others who will.
Common Myths and the Realities
When it comes to explosives within the United States, there is no blanket exemption covering everything for everybody despite many false beliefs. Being exempt from criminal law statues in most states regarding the possession and use of explosives, does not protect you from any state or local regulatory requirements that exist. Although many state regulatory agencies do not actively enforce their codes with public safety personnel, many will still be ultimately responsible to investigate any accident or reported misuse of explosives, and are obligated to act on non-compliance issues that are discovered.
Furthermore, when dealing with the regulatory blasting agencies in many states, we’ve learned that they are totally unaware of explosive breaching, and that agencies within their jurisdiction are using it. And since the regulator’s requirements were written without this particular use of explosives in mind, they may have no mechanism in place to exempt those agencies—which places those agencies at risk of being non-compliant. Written exemptions by federal regulatory agencies do not supersede state or local ordinances/ requirements (or vice versa), and you must follow the “most stringent rule” whenever dealing with these issues.
An additional note on personal safety and compliance:
Aside from the suicide bomber, tactical breaching is the only discipline utilizing explosives that requires the user to be in close proximity to the detonation point. Therefore, explosive breachers must be cognizant of other potential hazards they may be exposed to, and the negative health effects caused over time.
Fumes resulting from the detonation process, byproducts from charge and breach point target construction materials, and other adverse environmental conditions may not be immediately recognized, known or understood, but they can produce harmful effects that appear years later. In addition, because of the increasing use of explosive breaching, certain regulatory agencies are now starting to question the potential occupational hazards produced by this discipline. For these reasons, breachers should always utilize respiratory protection during both training and operations, whenever possible.
A recent survey done on teams with explosive breaching programs revealed that only 49 percent of these agencies had a written SOP! And while statistics are only as good as the numbers submitted, percentages, in this case, reveal the true problem. Our extensive work with legal teams around the United States has led us to this conclusion—although you must protect the operational security of your tactics and procedures, you cannot defend the use of an explosive breaching program without a policy in place to support it.
You must have standards for the certification, training and the selection process of your personnel. And while this
SOP may differ in each jurisdiction, your agency’s legal folks must always be involved in the early stages of establishing a progressive explosive breaching program, so they understand the realities and can best defend you and your agency, if that’s ever required.
We love addressing this one. Not that we’re working in a slightly ego-driven profession here, right? Equating numbers alone is like saying that an officer involved in more shootings is a more accurate shot, has better tactics, and is more competent than his counterparts. And perhaps he is, but the one doesn’t dictate the other. We’ve seen the outcome of many operational breaches that produced disastrous results, along with unnecessary and unexpected damage.
In some jurisdictions there exists a mentality of “do it be- cause we can, not because we should,” which has resulted in a negative impact on other regions and programs. We see a good number of highly trained, highly motivated teams who are constantly raising the bar on their programs, yet they are still waiting for their first operational breach using explosives. Expertise and proficiency in explosive breaching, whether obtained from operations or training, belongs to the team who understand the release of energy they produce, and who are aggressive in obtaining legitimate load data in real urban environments on actual structures—inside and out. Professionals in this field have the discipline not to deploy explosives when the threat conditions don’t warrant it. Operations only raise the stakes involved-not the expertise.
Here’s another disturbing statistic that came from that recent breaching survey: only 69 percent of the breaching teams claimed to have the ability to breach walls! Why is that? If they already have a program, and they understand the release of energy, why do so many not have the ability to apply it to any surface? For starters, many of these teams received their initial training on ranges or facades, where wall breaching simply wasn’t part of the curriculum (unless, perhaps, you attended an advanced breaching course). This means they complete their certification with no load data for walls, because of the lack of real structures to train on. More commonly (and more irritating), there are many students whose certification training focused solely on using commercial products to do wall breaching, which gave them the false impression that these items are required to successfully perform the task. But no worries … the school will surely sell you as many of these items as you can afford to take home with you! Sadly, the most common response we hear from teams who claim no wall breaching ability is: We only know how to do it with the frames they showed us in school, but we can’t afford to buy any.
Now let’s add fuel to a fire by claiming that the use of these commercial products will reduce your liability and they are more efficient than other available means. Arguments over the applicable use of commercial breaching products continue to surface, as more and more breachers are conducting their own comparison tests to validate the data. Some of the long- standing claims by vendors that their products will require less explosives and reduce liability in their usage, are now being closely examined (and often disputed) by the breachers out there who are no longer willing to take this at face value. Years of independent testing from legitimate breachers have proved that in almost all situations, any entry you can achieve using a commercial frame can be replicated without one-often using the same or lesser amounts of explosives.
And again, working directly with the various blasting manufacturers and legal defense teams across the United States, we have seen that using these commercial products relieves you of zero responsibility, and they provide little liability protection without your breachers’ comprehensive knowledge of blast pressure science and the use of energetic materials, and your training profile to support what you say. If you plan to use any breaching product in a live operation, you must be able to produce thoroughly documented training records, showing how you established the load data for using that item, compared to other methods. Just as importantly, this applies to using any render safe tools in urban environments, and being able to demonstrate your understanding of what will hap- pen to surrounding areas when you load it with energetics and deploy it.
This is a good place to throw out the “show me” card, and whenever you’re told that using a product will reduce your liability, ask for it in writing (see how well that works for you).
While there are a number of available products designed for render safe and explosive breaching that will enhance your program (if you have the money), these items should never define or drive your capabilities.
No calculation or formula alone will provide a team with all the necessary information needed to determine a safe staging location in an urban detonation. Nor were any of these calculations ever designed for this purpose.
The minimum safe distance (MSD) calculation commonly being used to determine a 4 psi exposure distance is grossly misunderstood, and does not take into account the shape of the charge, placement location, shock wave hazards, which produce falling items (like glass), and/ or any reflective sur- faces around the breach point (including the ground). This formula may appear to work, when initiating smaller door charges, on ranges or breaching houses where many of these issues don’t exist, but oftentimes doesn’t fare well in real neighborhoods.
Again, thousands of documented urban detonations have proven that the calculated MSD doesn’t work solely based on a number punched into a calculator.
So, what about all those nifty safe distance charts available out there which allow explosive breachers a quick reference resource? They are useless, at face value, since they only pro- vide a small piece of the puzzle in an actual crime scene.
Refer to the previous paragraph. This belief is nothing more than an urban legend with no basis in science, research or actual application. But this myth has been regurgitated over and over to breachers everywhere for decades. Since teams are often exposed to tremendously higher psi pressures than their predicted 4 psi (based on reflective surfaces, the environment and where they position personnel), how can cutting that distance by one half make any sense whatsoever? And by the way, blast pressure doesn’t scale. That is one of the supposed justifications for applying this methodology in the first place. Although there are a number of (you guessed it) quick reference charts for explosive breachers which tabulate this ‘magical’ distance, both with and without a ballistic shield, their validity has been debunked over and over again, for years, with shots on actual structures. They may seem to work under range conditions, or using small charges, but don’t let prior good fortune dictate potential future catastrophes.
See how quickly you learn this? In short (since we’ve covered this topic at length in previous articles—CATO News Winter 2011), the formula commonly used by breachers (known to some as the Weibull formula) to determine psi values within enclosed areas, has absolutely nothing to offer. It doesn’t work to predict anything what- soever; and it is responsible for giving operators a false sense of confidence, while exposing them to some serious potential injuries.
No calculation, equation, formula, or computer program will ever be able to factor in all the reflective surfaces within a volume (under tactical conditions), along with charge configuration and location, to provide you with a useful safety number. To date, even the people who teach this insanity can’t articulate exactly where within the area that achieved psi number on your calculator is supposed to exist. Contemporary breachers still need to do these calculations whenever possible, since they are still considered common practice by their peers in the breaching community. But breachers should be doing the calculations for the sole purpose of validating and documenting how they don’t work, and hopefully someday we can put an end to this dangerous practice.
Bottom line: No charts or math formulas can substitute for actual experience in explosive breaching. Quick reference charts and computer programs used in this skill also promote laziness, by taking short cuts, where no legitimate ones exist.
This is a two-pronged issue. First, if you haven’t obtained sufficient load data, or haven’t had the proper training to provide you with the experience and confidence to deploy energetic materials in a tactical situation, explosive breaching should not even be considered as an option. Using explosives haphazardly will provide you with nothing more than a very high potential for disaster and failure.
Second, unless you can articulate a specific reason for increasing the NEW for an operation (increasing from what your documented load data records reflect), the use of that charge (and any resulting injuries and/or damages) will be difficult to defend, and your credibility as a properly trained professional will come into question. Which leads us to the next topic.
Once again, there are way too many factors involved in proper data collection that simply cannot be replicated on a majority of training facilities. While “houses” and stand-alone facades are an absolute necessity to provide agencies with the ability to become competent with the handling of explosives and tactical training (especially when you lack real structures), they won’t simulate all the conditions of a real urban detonation, and therefore won’t offer much credible information.
True load data goes well beyond the actual surface of your target (i.e. hollow/solid core doors, wood/metal skins, 6-inch cement blocks, etc.), but also may depend on framing, hinge screws, hardware, fire blocking, insulation, all locking mechanisms (and throw lengths), just to name a few variables. Any experienced breacher will tell you that your solid core wooden doors are not all the same, and they may require different load strengths, based on a multitude of details, including the weakest part of that particular type of solid core wooden door. The factors include hinge screws, locks, or the door’s internal construction. And what effect will reflected overpressure play on a target inside a room, hallway or enclosed patio? Breaching
training houses are usually constructed to withstand multiple hits from explosive charges; your local hotel (whether it be the
No-Tell Motel or a high end casino resort) is not.
This one isn’t a matter of being right because there are, once again, too many factors involved (and multiple conflicting references) for you to come up with a “correct” answer. It’s more about the users being able to properly articulate why they used the numbers they do, where those figures came from, and knowing there are other reference sources that will differ from whatever number you use.
Many commercial detonators used in explosive breaching vary in NEWs, and typically range between approx. 8.7 (UB) to 13.7 (1.4B) grains, according to manufacturer specification sheets. And when it comes to the never-ending dispute over correct “relative effectiveness” differing methods of deter- mining the RE of explosive materials (in comparison to TNT) results in different values for the respiratory protection that should be worn whenever possible.
These subjects are well documented, so as a subject matter expert be very careful about making a blanket statement on facts that are easily disputed by the conflicting, yet credible, reference sources available. As long as you can intelligently articulate where you got your data, the differences you’ll actually obtain in your final calculations will be unimportant. Which values you use for detonators and RE are not nearly as important as why you use them.
The sole hope of this article is to get operators thinking beyond what they may have been taught, question what they’ve been told over the years, and no longer take anything (even from this article) at face value just because somebody seems really smart or had “experience as a breacher” in some capacity or another. The two most important words that breachers should be using today are “show me.” And because it’s easy to be convinced of something when you have no other point of reference, we live by the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That’s something we’ve all experienced at one time or another.
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