The end of the hazardous devices tech?


I'm writing this for the ever-increasing number of people who want to horn in on our profession. Some are truly well-meaning, while many are either ignorant or plain uncaring. For whatever reason, their legions are growing.

 

The field of Bomb Disposal is a complicated one. Watching Technicians work, some may be inclined to think that it is a simple, straightforward process. The fact is, most Technicians are so adept at the tasks of detection, diagnosis, and disablement that they often 'make it look easy.

 

These men and women are truly a national asset, and all volunteer their services. A scene is beginning to emerge with alarming frequency: A package shows up in the mail; or 'something' is left behind where it shouldn't be. Alert security or other personnel make the correct call - it's a suspicious package - and they call the authorities.

 

Here is where this scenario goes terribly wrong. As the majority of teams across the country are part-time, meaning all of the Technicians hold other jobs within a department, some times there is a delay as the team is constituted. Occasionally, a member of management drops the ball and wants the scene cleared more quickly than is safe. And, as is beginning to appear, people place misguided trust in a single system.

 

So far, no one has been killed by these practices. It is a matter of time before someone does. Here's why:

 

First, it is very, very bad to touch or otherwise manipulate a suspect package. This is because not only is it trivially easy to create a trigger that can activate the bomb when it is lightly touched, if the bomb is remotely controlled, the bomber can activate the bomb when the victim approaches. Technicians have a protective suit to defend themselves, and they almost never touch the package until they have exactly determined the contents.

 

Second, it is very, very foolhardy to rely on a single system to determine what is inside a package. There can be false negatives. Not all explosives in all circumstances can be reliably detected. Period. 

 

You'll notice that while both bomb detectors and canines have been around for a long time, Bomb Technicians rarely employ either of them. Further, as bombers realize First Responders are using a single test platform, or even both of them as the sole indicator of the presence of a bomb, they will rapidly develop countermeasures.

 

Now, I understand all too well the push to clear a busy intersection, or not run the tab up on having a lot of responders present on what is, statistically, "usually" a hoax. And, with the big dollars having swung from conspiracy and drug investigations in the 90s, to the terrorism issues of today, it is very tempting for a group, oh, like the National Guard to want to help by forming teams and changing mandates to be eligible for some of that funding.

 

Let me be blunt and provide a wakeup call. If you do not have a Bomb Technician in your response team, you are not a Bomb Squad. If you have a Bomb Tech, or four, but no tools, you are not a Bomb Squad.

 

If you are not a Bomb Squad, you have ZERO business fiddling with a suspect item.

 

And, it is infinitely frustrating to those of us in the field, because we know it's a matter of time before one of you loses a limb or your life over a 30-minute wait.

 

Here is what Bomb Technicians recommend you do at the next scene. If the first person to find the item believes it's a bomb, so do we. There is no further need for a second opinion, whether it is from another person, a device or a canine. Regardless of what the secondary survey says, we will still handle the incident exactly as if the second survey hadn't been made. A positive hit will not make us any more safety-conscious and a negative one any less.

 

If the secondary survey is made anyway and doesn't show positive for trace explosives, resist the urge to open the package. A WMD can be made that doesn't need explosives, and will function when the container is opened. Remember, the "alarm" lamp on the unit may be burned out. Maybe the dog had the only off day it will ever have. Maybe it's an explosive new to the machine or dog.

 

Managers, let me explain this in your terms. There is NO policy or procedure written anywhere as of now that allows for people outside of a Bomb Squad to handle suspected devices. You incur a HUGE liability exposure allowing non-Bomb Squad personnel, however equipped, to diagnose and clear a package. If the package damages property, you will pay civilly. If it also injures the employee or worse, bystanders, you may be held criminally liable.

 

Line supervisors, don't allow the public, or your own brass to con you into moving any quicker than necessary. Senior management, take a stand. Put written policy into effect prohibiting the subsequent tampering with a suspected bomb by anyone but the Bomb Squad.

 

Scientists, please, by ALL means, continue working on solutions to the issue of suspect packages. But work with the experts in the field. You see, you may understand the chemistry of explosives, but that's a small part of the bomb 'pie.'

 

Canine handlers, we aren't running you out of the explosives business either. Dogs still are the fastest, most economical way to search large areas. But, don't let a manager or the public unnecessarily increase the threat to your dog or you by asking you to do a secondary survey of a suspected package. I understand you would like to have as many accurate recordable contacts as you can get, but allowing yourself to make that secondary sniff of a package will one day result in not only harm to your partner or you, but to your community.

 

In closing, the day of a totally reliable detection system for bombs may materialize. Until it does, don't allow yourself to be sacrificed on the altar of speed or money, especially when help is just around the corner!

About the author

Shawn Hughes is an often controversial veteran Patrol Officer and Bomb Technician who now works for a Federal agency, but still consults for various agencies and private corporations when he isn’t writing or teaching. His articles have been published in three countries on two continents. He's written for the majority of law enforcement publications in the US, including the NTOA’s Tactical Edge, the IABTI’s Detonator, SWAT, Police, and others. His second book, on obtaining a job in Law Enforcement, is out now, with a third on lock technology in development. He can be reached at srh@esper.com .

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