Daly City Councilman Mike Guigona, center, is flanked by Scott Hepler, left, and Korey Strader, both of the Daly City Police Department and the San Mateo County SWAT team. (Courtesy Hanley Chan)

Daly City first responders get explosives training

Taking a cue from a city councilman turned citizen soldier, Daly City firefighting and police personnel recently received training on how to recognize and respond to homemade explosive devices.

Daly City Councilman Mike Guingona, a second lieutenant in the California State Military Reserve, began his incident response training last year, when members of his battalion traveled to Nevada to learn how to respond to nuclear emergencies.

The councilman said the experience convinced him first responders in San Mateo County should have similar training. When the opportunity to take the homemade explosive class came up, he suggested it to local police and fire officials.

Homemade explosives, or HMEs, have become a hot topic for law enforcement and public safety agencies. In December, media outlets reported Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik left a radio-controlled bomb at the scene of their San Bernardino shooting spree, and the device was similar to the ones used by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombings.

A police raid of the couple’s home reportedly uncovered a cache of bomb-making materials, and authorities believe that, like the Tsarnaev brothers, Farook and Malik learned to make bombs by following instructions posted online by the Al Qaeda terror group.

CSMR Sgt. Robert Katz, who organized the recent HME training in San Jose, said hydrogen peroxide, powdered sugar, fertilizer, radiator “stop leak” products, and even the aluminum powder found in Etch A Sketch toys are among the commonly available materials that can be used to make bombs.

Guingona noted the one-day course focused on recognizing explosives, but not handling or defusing them — a job best left to bomb squad experts.

Katz agreed, saying, “This course won’t make you Bruce Willis, snipping wires.”

Katz said much of the training could be encapsulated in the acronym, “RAIN,” which stands for, “recognize, avoid, isolate and notify.”

And being aware of the possibility a secondary explosive device might be planted with the intention of injuring first responders is also part of the training, according to Guingona. The councilman noted establishing a safe perimeter around the scene of a bombing is of paramount importance.

“If you can see the blast site, you’re not out of range,” Guingona said.

Katz said the training has already saved lives and averted potential terror attacks. In a 2003 case in Jersey City, N.J., firefighters responding to a report of smoke in an apartment complex were puzzled to find 14 containers of urine on the premises.

The incident commander did not initially attach much significance to the stored urine, Katz said, but one firefighter who’d taken the HME training recognized the bottles of human waste were evidence of a bomb-making operation.

Urine can be boiled down to urea, which can be used as a bomb ingredient, Katz explained. And further investigation of the site revealed maps of local transit systems.

Joining Guingona for the recent training were Scott Hepler and Korey Strader, who are both Daly City police officers and San Mateo County SWAT team operators. North County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Brad Hartzell also attended.

Now that they’ve taken the HME course, Guingona said the men are eligible to take additional related courses, free of charge. Those multi-day trainings are offered by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Guingona explained.

Because the university has plenty of space for blowing things up, the classes are more “hands on” than the HME course, giving participants opportunities to train at actual blast sites.

“They detonate stuff out in the desert,” Guingona noted.

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