Kudos to that British ambulance crew, who foiled an apparent car-bombing attack in London’s West End early today.

The ambulance crew, dispatched to treat an individual at a nightclub in the area, spotted smoke in the car and alerted police. They found a green metallic Mercedes rigged to explode, with more than 60 liters of gasoline, propane cylinders and nails scattered in the floorboard. The area was subsequently evacuated, and the Metropolitan Police bomb squad manually defused the explosive device. The potential carnage from the car bomb could have been devastating.

According to Sky News, a eyewitness told police that a man crashed the vehicle into trash bins near the nightclub before the alarm was raised. British counter-terrorism officials tell the BBC that “international elements” are believed to be involved in the plot.

Today’s close call in London reminds us of the importance of situational awareness–and first responders–in dealing with the terrorist threat. That British ambulance crew saw something amiss with that Mercedes and summoned police, preventing a terrible tragedy. They resisted the temptation to focus solely on their assigned task–treating that nightclub guest–and leave the matter of a suspicious car to someone else.

Given similar circumstances, we can only hope that EMTs in the U.S. would do the same thing. And in some locations–notably New York City–I believe they would. But in other communities, I have my doubts. I frequently shop at a big box retail outlet not far from my home. The outlet follows the chain’s retailing model; a 200,000 square-foot store, with a multi-acre parking lot in front. More than two months ago, I spotted a Dodge Dynasty in the lot with a flat front tire. The car sat there for months in the same location, no sign of the owner, and no apparent effort to fix the flat or remove the car. Being the suspicious type, I contacted the local cops, who told me it was a store matter; various managers at the retail outlet thanked me for calling, and told me (in polite terms) not to worry about it.

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The car finally disappeared, but that didn’t alleviate my concerns. While the car with a flat tire probably belonged to a shopper or store employee, there’s also the outside chance that it could have been a “dry run” by folks who would do us harm. A car bomb outside a big box could also produce heavy casualties, particularly if the blast were timed for a peak shopping hour in the late afternoon, or on a weekend. Parking a disabled car in the lot for a few weeks is an excellent test of store security practices. If you won’t move a car that’s been sitting there for weeks, you’ll probably ignore a car that has smoke fumes visible on the inside, or a back-end sitting low to the ground–warning signs of a potential car bomb.

In the Age of Terror, two lessons are abundantly clear: First, report all suspicious activity, and secondly don’t assume that “routine” events are always benign. That British ambulance crew certainly passed the situational awareness test this morning, and saved countless lives in the process. I’ve got my doubts about the managers and security staff at that big box store in my neighborhood.

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