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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Tommy Curry was driving up N.C. 87 toward Sanford on Tuesday afternoon when he spotted an opaque white bag the size of a small pig in the middle of his lane. He slowed to get a better look.
Curry looks at a bag of kitchen trash in the highway with the eye of an officer of the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office and a deputy fire marshal. He is both.
"You never know what you're going to find in a bag like that," Curry said later, back at his office. "It could be a bomb. It could be anything."
That's the very lesson the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tried to impress on more than 150 police officers from across the state Tuesday at the IED Awareness for Law Enforcement workshop. The event was held in a conference room at Crown Coliseum in conjunction with IED 2008, a combination trade show and symposium on the dreaded improvised explosive device that terrorists have used to kill thousands of people worldwide.
Space for the workshop was donated by the Lodestar Group, sponsor of the trade show.
The free workshop is one that Homeland Security puts on for law enforcement officers around the country as part of its mandate to help local communities protect against terrorism.
Though homemade bombs have been used in this country for decades, the possibility that organized groups could use them in the U.S. as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan is still such a novel concept that even the government doesn't seem to know what it wants to tell the public about it.
When a speaker learned a reporter had sat through the morning session Tuesday, he asked the reporter to leave, saying the material was intended only for a law-enforcement audience. Laura Keehner, press secretary for the department, later said it would be OK for the reporter to stay.
During the event, speakers gave general information about the assembly, delivery, mechanics and effects of various types of homemade bombs but acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges in defeating them is that more detailed information is readily available on the Internet. A quick search will turn up explicit instructions on such topics as what chemicals to mix and the best choice for fuses.
Law enforcement agencies, speakers said, must try to stay a step ahead, learning to spot suspicious items and potential bombers in time to prevent them from killing innocent people.
John Yarboro, homeland security branch chief for the state Division of Emergency Management, said most experts he has talked with about IEDs believe the United States will see a successful attack.
"The day is coming," Yarboro said. "The question is not 'if' but 'when.' "
And yet many police departments have no written protocol and get no formal training on what to do with a suspected bomb or how to react if one goes off. Especially for smaller departments, Yarboro said, which can't afford a lot of specialized training, the workshop Tuesday could mean the difference between mass casualties and just a big boom.
Sgt. Jimmie Silver of the N.C. Highway Patrol's special operations office in Cary, said that he does not think IEDs are an immediate threat but that the training would help him.
"You don't want to be caught blind," he said. "This at least gives you some idea what to look for."