Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writers' Police Academy: Hazardous Devices Team

By Beth Terrell

At Lee Lofland's Writers' Police Academy a few weeks ago, I got a chance to talk with a member of the Hazardous Devices Team, also known as the Bomb Team, and examine some of the equipment. I took four pages of notes, but for the purposes of this post, I'll just hit the high points.

In Greensboro, which is where the Academy took place, there are 12 team members and 8 certified techs (in a force of 600). They're a regional team, the members of which are trained at the HDS (Hazardous Devices School), the school of civilian bomb techs in Hunstville, Alabama. In addition to the civilian (non-military) team members, there is an FBI agent and an ATF agent attached to the team. These agents don't run calls with the team, but are available to consult with the team and help with training.

There are 466 such teams in the country. Once upon a time, they worked strictly with bombs and other explosives, but because of the increased threat of biological and chemical weapons, the focus of their work has expanded. Thus, the official name change from Bomb Squad to Hazardous Devices Team.

Team members undergo extensive psychological testing before they can be on the team. When he gave us this bit of information, Jake--the team member giving the talk--grinned and said, "I'm not sure if they're testing to see if you're too crazy to be on the team or if you're crazy enough to be on the team."

When asked if he felt afraid when working to neutralize a bomb or other hazardous device, he shook his head and said there was no fear when you went on a call; it was more like excitement.

"What drew you to this line of work?" I asked Jake.

"The mental challenge," he said. "The mechanical side. It's definitely not high-speed. It's slow and methodical. Figuring out how the device works and how to disarm it. Beating the bomb."

"And you get to blow things up," I said, referring to an earlier comment about disarming some devices by detonating them.

He grinned again. "Well, that's always a plus."

It's not hard to make an explosive device, he told us. Pipe bombs with black powder are most common, but C4 and TNT are among the many alternatives. He explained how the explosion itself can tell you what material was used. TNT uses a push, a force. The smoke from a TNT explosion is white. C4 fractures instead of pushing. It makes a louder crack than TNT, and the smoke is black. Here, in no particular order, are some of the interesting things I learned from Jake's talk.

1) Team members who are approaching an explosive device wear a heavy (approximately 85 pounds), olive-green suit with ceramic inserts covering the chest and torso. The inserts are designed to break if he suit is hit my "frag;" this absorbs much of the force and may save the officer's life. "It's not much use if you're standing right over the device," Jake said, "but it's good for when you're entering or leaving the area. That's what it's designed for, because a lot of these guys set booby traps." There's a control pad on the arm of the suit--a light, a fan, batteries, and so on. It controls the temperature inside the suit. Jake called it "the brains of the suit."

2) When possible, they prefer to send the robot in. They have two, one called "Ray" after a former team member and another as yet unnamed. The robot is run via fiber-optics. It can go up and down stairs, but isn't of much use if the staircase is long or winding, because the fiber will get tangled in the banister and/or the turns. It has two mounted cameras that can scan 360 degrees and a weapons camera that shows you the angle of the two thin "cannons" that shoot water or projectiles. There's a pincer-style "hand" or grasper at the front, and the quick-release tires can be removed so the device can go down the aisle of a plane. Operating the robot is a delicate operation; team members need plenty of what they call "stick time" to master it.

3) Silly Putty was originally designed sd a rubber sealant for explosives, buut it wasn't strong enough. It made a great toy, though!

4) If the suspected device is under a car (or other small place where the robot can't reach), team members have a long stick with a grasper on one end. "You can do a fair amount and keep some distance."

5) If it looks like an actual explosive device, and if it's in an area that can withstand the damage, they set a counter-charge and blow it up. If that's not possible, they have several other alternatives. The most common is a water column; it will pull apart the batteries and blasting caps, fry circuits, and swell to pop open a package or backpack. If you can't use water on the device, you can fire a projectile into it.

As you can imagine, I left the Jake and the Bomb Team with a head full of story ideas and an even greater respect for the job they do. Thanks, guys!

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