Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

FFE/FFI - or blow in-situ?

There are differences of opinion about whether it is safer to blow in-situ or to render the item safe for later destruction. As usual, everyone is right - for a given value of "right".

I can readily understand the need for professional training before anyone should approach many complex items of ordnance with souvenirs or ashtrays in mind. Half an hour in the bar with many EOD-techs convinces me that having good reference material is often not enough to even be 100% sure of the right identification, never mind the approach. None the less, formal EOD training "rules" and requirements are not applied to the disarming and dismantling of mines in most places I know.

Under a wide range of terms, render-safe, FFE, FFI, disarming and neutralising is routinely done by many groups in the field. [For newcomers, FFE - Free From Explosive and FFI - Free from initiators.]

FFE - Free From Explosive but still including its metal content [and sometimes its detonator, so only nominally "FFE"]. Many responsible demining groups who are anxious to comply with contracts that specify depth and who want their deminers to be really confident in their metal-detector and their ability to use it - routinely FFE mines found during Technical Survey, area reduction or in the first part of clearance in order to be certain that their metal-detectors can detect the metal content at the required depth. Sometimes you could use the same mine-model from another area, but it helps to have several so that deminers are not delayed waiting for a turn - and the condition of the metal in some old mines varies widely according to the ground they have been in (the GYATA-64s in Mozambique is an example). Using locally found mines makes sense and leaves the deminers really confident of the results.

FFI - Free From its Initiation system and detonator: FFI mines from the mined area are used by some dog groups in their daily "refresher" training and dog assessment prior to deployment. The same arguments about the realistic condition of the mine apply when a dog is used instead of a metal-detector - only more so because many dog-handlers argue that it is the entire "bouquet" of mine content, casing and the chemical interaction with the surrounding ground that dogs find (preferably without then trying to dig it up!).

Defuse/disarm: The actual deminer rarely performs a full FFE, although I have seen deminers routinely removing the booster, detonator and/or fuze from mines, so allowing them to be safely moved for bulk demolition. Some groups replace safety pins or clips - but there have been accidents doing this and it is frowned on by others. When dogs are used for QA, or there are fragmentation mines, many argue that the mines in good condition should be moved in order to contain the effects of their destruction. Bad experiences with the PROM and VALMARA-69 aside, this is widely done without problems.

Lifting: while lifting and moving some items of UXO is common, I have only seen one demining group that routinely lifts mines without defusing or disarming then. These mines are placed in sand boxes and transported from the site to a bulk collection point each day. The movement of live and primed mines in this way is not normally acceptable. Usually it is the local Section, Squad or Team Leader who disarms or takes mines apart.

While I know that many EOD trained people like to promote their skill as a "black art" - it is not hard to render-safe and FFE many/most blast mines that are in good condition. It is routinely done - and it is usually done for a better purpose than the manufacture of a display-case souvenir or an ashtray.

The accidents that occur while disarming blast mines in Humanitarian Demining are rare - although it is true that there have been more than have occurred while laying charges to destroy mine in-situ. Some groups routinely do it and do not have accidents, others have had several that have occurred with the same mines undergoing the same disarming routine.

Despite the "common sense" appeal of the rule not to handle more than necessary, the evidence implies that it need not be especially dangerous to disarm and/or FFE, FFI devices. As long as damaged devices are always excluded and the range is limited to those that are well known, many believe that the advantages in terms of fast and efficient clearance can far outweigh the small risk.

EOD Deminers: the people I know who routinely do it are not trained to any Western standard. They were usually trained by being shown and copying - and by thoroughly inspecting devices that came from stores and had never been armed. Most of these devices are pretty simple. Experience works better than any number of blackboard sessions.... especially when coupled with a healthy survival instinct. The best preparation would be a combination of experience and theory so that those trained could cope with a wider range of devices, but the "ideal" is rarely achievable in a post-war setting, especially in a country that has never had a developed formal education sector.

I know of no demining group that routinely disarms UXO, although many defuse mortar bombs when the fuze can be moved without too much force. Large items of ordnance may have to be disarmed for safe disposal, but they are relatively rare in most demining scenarios. Civilians do it of course - for the recycling value of the parts - and we all know of the many accidents that they suffer. It is the civilians who need some training to improve their awareness of what not to do, not the deminers. But I believe that it would usually be cheaper to stimulate the local economy in other ways and make it unattractive to people to risk their lives for a few pennies.