Preventing terrorism, part II: Reporting emergencies

By Ted Parker

San Diego Police Department Neighborhood Policing Resource Team

This article gives examples of various activities that are considered to be emergencies for reporting purposes. These include crimes that are in progress or about to happen, and ones that have resulted in serious personal injury, property damage or property loss. They also include situations in which the suspect may still be at the scene and various kinds of suspicious activities.

By calling 9-1-1 you will be linked to the appropriate police as well as fire fighting, medical, and ambulance services. You don’t need money to call 9-1-1 from a pay phone.

When reporting an emergency be prepared to give an accurate description of what the emergency is and your location, especially if you are calling from a mobile cellular phone. The dispatcher has no way of knowing where you are if you are using a cellular phone unless you have a E9-1-1-ready phone that provides location information based on a Global Positioning System (GPS).

People with cell phones need to check with their vendor to determine if their phones are E9-1-1 ready. All new phones have a GPS capability but must be activated to work in that capacity. Otherwise the dispatcher can determine the street address and apartment or condo unit only if you are calling from a fixed or wire line phone. Thus, if a landline is available it is better to use it instead of a cell phone.

Answer the dispatcher’s questions about the emergency and don’t hang up until you are told. With the address, if the line is disconnected or the caller cannot speak, an officer will still be dispatched. The following are considered emergencies for reporting purposes.

Persons doing the following:

  • Sketching, taking notes, drawing maps or diagrams, photographing, videotaping, or otherwise monitoring facilities not normally associated with tourist activity or other places that may be targets for terrorist attacks, e.g., key government facilities, airports, bridges, chemical plants, power plants, schools, religious institutions, shopping centers, etc.
  • Collecting detailed information on facility entrances, exits, driveways, parking spaces, etc.
  • Using binoculars, high-magnification lenses, or night-vision or thermal-imaging devices in observing a facility or activity that may be a target
  • Attempting to obtain information about a person, place, operation, or event that may be a target
  • Attempting to improperly acquire explosives, detonators, timers, weapons, ammunition, body armor, propane bottles or tanks, etc.
  • Attempting to buy large amounts of high-nitrate fertilizers or other unusual chemicals
  • Loading vehicles with weapons or explosives
  • Attempting to improperly acquire official uniforms, passes, badges, IDs, license plates, vehicles, etc.
  • Seeking treatment for chemical burns or missing hands/fingers
  • Having untreated chemical burns or missing hands/fingers

Objects in the open, or in vehicles or buildings having the following characteristics may be bombs:

  • Unattended bags, backpacks, boxes, etc. near places that may be targets
  • Having antennas, batteries, timers, capped pipes, etc.
  • Emitting a strong chemical odor

Persons, not just adult males, with several of the following characteristics may be suicide bombers carrying bombs.

  • Are nervous, sweating, or mumbling
  • Are wearing loose or bulky clothing that is inappropriate for the current weather conditions
  • Are wearing an inordinate amount of perfume, cologne, or other scents that may be used to mask chemical odors
  • Do not look like they belong in the uniform or dress they are wearing, which may be a disguise to elude detection
  • Are carrying or wearing heavy objects
  • Holding a bag or package close to his or her body
  • Are repeatedly patting upper body or adjusting clothing
  • Keeping one or both hands in pockets or close to his or her body, possible holding a detonator switch
  • Having visible wires or an explosive belt protruding from under his or her clothing
  • Having bulges or padding around the midsection
  • Appearing well-groomed but wear sloppy clothing
  • Having a pale face from recently shaving a beard
  • Not responding to direct salutations or authoritative commands
  • Walking in a deliberate, stiff, or awkward manner
  • Acting in an unusually vigilant manner
  • Having a blank facial expression, or appearing extremely focused or in a trance
  • Exhibiting unusually calm and detached behavior

Letters or packages that contain a bomb or a chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) threat may have one or more of the following characteristics. Handle them with great care. Don’t shake, bump, smell, or open them. Put the letter or package down carefully and leave the area. Do not open windows. Call 911 from a landline phone if one is available outside the area. Otherwise it is OK to use a cell phone or pager. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if you touched the letter or package.

  • Are unexpected or from someone you don’t know
  • Are addressed to someone now longer at your address
  • Have no return address or one that does not appear legitimate
  • Are bulky, lumpy, or lopsided in appearance
  • Have wires or other unusual contents that are protruding or can be felt through the envelope or wrapping
  • Are sealed with excessive amounts of tape or string
  • Have restrictive markings such as “Personal” or “Confidential”
  • Have excessive postage
  • Emit a strange odor
  • Are mailed from a foreign country
  • Do not have a named addressee, e.g., are addressed to a title only
  • Have incorrect title or misspelled words in the address
  • Have oily stains, discolorations, or crystallization on the wrapper

For additional information see the
U.S. Postal Inspection Service Guide to Mail Center Security


If a suspicious object is found outside, get away from it after reporting it. Three hundred yards is a minimum distance. Then take cover for protection against bomb fragments. Get on the ground if no cover is available. Maintain distance and cover, or leave the area after an explosion. Be alert and cautious in reentering the area to help victims. There may be another device nearby.

Part III to follow will give examples of various activities that are considered to be non-emergencies for reporting purposes.