Second breakdown phenomenon in advanced NMOS ESD protection devices has remained an enigma due to the complex electrical and thermal effects that are responsible for its triggering. For the first time, we present a critical study of the high current phenomenon in ultra short-time scale to understand the physics of instability in protection devices around the second breakdown region. It is demonstrated that for advanced protection devices, carrier heating in the high field drain region causes a fall in the saturation drift velocity, which increases the transit time of carriers through the depletion region. This in turn, causes greater impact ionization due to higher accumulation of avalanche-generated carriers; leading to the formation of a propagating ionizing wave front, which culminates in a regenerative avalanche injection induced second breakdown failure. © 2005 IEEE.