Improving the bomb squad and SWAT partnership

The current threat environment demands a closer relationship between these two specialties


At the 2019 National Tactical Officers Association conference, Tom Lynch – the Explosive/IED Section Chair at the National Tactical Officers Association – and Lieutenant  David Yusko – of the New Jersey State Police Bomb Unit – addressed the importance of improving the relationship between bomb technicians and SWAT operators to counter the threat of explosive devices in the tactical environment.

Lynch and Yusko described how the SWAT and bomb squad communities have a long history of independent operations in American law enforcement. While they have responded to the same police emergencies, the two specialties have typically operated as independent, non-integrated entities – friends working cooperatively in close proximity to each other, perhaps, but not together as part of a single unit.

The current threat

A member of the bomb squad carries a suitcase out of the Washington Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Monday, Oct. 23, 2017. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office was evacuated for a few hours after a woman dropped off a cartoon-themed suitcase she said was for the governor and ran out of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
A member of the bomb squad carries a suitcase out of the Washington Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Monday, Oct. 23, 2017. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office was evacuated for a few hours after a woman dropped off a cartoon-themed suitcase she said was for the governor and ran out of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

That model may have worked acceptably in the past, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the current threat environment demands a closer relationship between these two specialties. We can no longer afford to have SWAT officers and bomb technicians operating in their own “silos.”

As a result of many influences, the possibility American law enforcement will encounter threats from explosive devices has dramatically increased in the last several decades. Consider the nexus between the following developments:

  • Several decades of warfare in the Middle East, resulting in the loss and uncontrolled distribution of military-grade explosives, as well as the proliferation of personnel with experience in building and using bombs;
  • A global rise in terrorism, with the United States serving as a prime target for many groups;
  • Narcotics cartels making greater use of explosives;
  • A porous and unsecured southern border, which allows personnel and bomb-making materials easy transit into the United States;
  • The capability to easily share bomb-making information and tactical training through the internet and social media.

As such, it’s even more likely that police will encounter explosive threats in the course of domestic law enforcement operations these days.

History of criminal use of explosives

The concern is not simply academic. Lynch described that in the past decade or so, we’ve seen an increasing number of cases where explosives were employed by criminal and terrorist actors here in the United States. Consider this sampling of recent cases where explosives were present:

Also consider these high-profile cases where law enforcement believed the attackers had explosives, thereby complicating the police response to the emergency:

If the past is any indicator of the future, it’s clear that tactical teams will need to improve their ability to operate in environments where explosives are present.

Individual-level skills

Getting a SWAT team ready to operate in this kind of environment is a big undertaking, and it begins at the individual operator level. It’s essential a SWAT officer has the appropriate training to accomplish tasks such as:

  • Detect and recognize explosive devices and their triggers;
  • Recognize the clues that indicate the presence of an explosive device (such as bomb-making components and equipment);
  • Mark the location of explosives to warn other public safety personnel;
  • Understand what the proper standoff distances are for various types of explosive weapons such as grenades, suicide vests, pipe bombs and car bombs;
  • Understand the best tactics for shooting suspects armed with explosives;
  • Understand the best ways to use cover as protection from thermal, fragmentation and pressure injuries;
  • Understand how to care for casualties of explosions.

SWAT training should begin with individual team members receiving qualified instruction in these areas from bomb technicians. If these two groups have not worked together very much in the past, this kind of instruction will provide an opportunity for bomb techs to interact with SWAT officers, and establish the cooperative, trusting relationship that’s necessary for expanded SWAT-bomb squad operations.

Team-level skills

Once a baseline of individual skills has been established, a SWAT team needs to understand how to operate as a group in an environment where explosives may be present. Consideration should be given to understanding tasks such as:

  • How to collect and report the information that bomb technicians will need to respond to an explosive threat;
  • Tactics for responding to a scene where explosives have been used or are threatened;
  • How to maintain proper intervals during group movement;
  • The balance between speed, awareness and safety during group movement;
  • The best tactics for safe breaching operations;
  • Team communications in an environment where radio use may present a risk of inadvertently detonating a device;
  • Officer rescues after an explosion;
  • MAC-TAC skills and tactics to counter adversaries armed with explosives;
  • Appropriate tactics for vehicle takedowns when the driver may have an explosive device;
  • How to secure public venues from personnel-borne and vehicle-borne explosive devices;
  • Evacuation and standoff protocols.

Once again, close cooperation with bomb technicians will be essential to developing these tactics and capabilities, and by getting these independent groups to work closely with each other in the training environment, you’ll be paving the way for them to work in concert operationally.

One fight, one team

As Yusko explained, however, the ultimate goal is for SWAT officers and bomb technicians to achieve some degree of integration or interoperability. Using bomb technicians to assist SWAT in building individual and team skills is an important stepping-stone in the path to developing enhanced capability, but it’s not the final destination.

The real objective is to get SWAT officers and the bomb squad working as one. Rather than having two organizations run their own independent operations, the objective is to get SWAT officers and bomb techs working together as one team, running a single plan under the direction of a single command.

This is necessary because the pace of tactical operations is unrelenting, and there is often no time for SWAT to go into a holding pattern while they await the arrival of bomb technicians that have to be generated and deployed the scene. Additionally, SWAT teams may encounter threats they are unprepared to deal with, even if they have received advanced awareness, recognition and response training from bomb techs.

Consider the case of a barricaded hostage situation that has taken a turn for the worse. As the tactical team prepares to breach and make an emergency entry, they discover evidence of an explosive device at the breach point, which interrupts the plan. Does this team have the time necessary to summon a bomb tech – even if they are already on scene – to advise them if the device can be safely bypassed, or if it must be dealt with in place? Will the hostage be dead before the bomb tech can be put into position to make the call?

Even worse, consider the team that is so busy looking for two-legged threats, they don’t notice the explosive device at all, and trigger it by accident.

It’s important to have a bomb technician on a SWAT team because it’s the only way to prevent unacceptable interruptions in the tempo of SWAT operations. The only way to rapidly deal with an explosive device is to have an expert as part of the team – someone who can make an educated decision about the risk associated with the device, and direct the appropriate team action (bypass, temporarily hold while the device is deactivated, or retreat) without delay.

Furthermore, it’s critical to have a bomb tech embedded in a SWAT team because bomb technicians are looking for different things than SWAT operators. Tactical team members are looking for human-based threats, while bomb technicians are looking for the telltale signs of an explosive. The bomb techs know where to look, and what they’re looking for, and they’re much more likely to detect a tripwire or a pressure pad than an operator who is scanning for a human threat.

Challenges

Yusko and Lynch recognize there are unique challenges that must be overcome in this quest for interoperability. Bomb techs typically don’t have the tactical training necessary to operate as part of an assault team, and may not have the same level of fitness or firearms proficiency as a dedicated SWAT member.

Additionally, there’s a clash of cultures involved. Bomb techs, by virtue of their work, aren’t used to working fast. They are deliberate in everything they do, and they certainly aren’t used to working at the accelerated tempo associated with most SWAT entries. Conversely, SWAT officers are so accustomed to moving and working fast that they increase their risk of blundering into an explosive device. When you’re operating in an environment where there’s a risk of a booby trap, you have to slow down to give yourself the time and processing ability to locate and recognize a device before you trigger it.

SWAT has to learn to slow down, and bomb techs have to learn to speed up. Bomb techs have to learn how to move as an operator, and SWAT officers have to learn how to think like a bomber. There’s work to be done on both sides of the aisle here if we’re to bring these two cultures together and make the team function as it should.

Resources are available to assist agencies seeking to improve SWAT-bomb squad interoperability. The NTOA provides a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) writing guide to assist agencies with drafting bomb-SWAT SOPs (available through the NTOA Member Portal, Policy Folder tab), and the FBI has a similar document in its Special Technicians Bulletin (STB) 2010-1 (which is available through their Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal). These documents will give agencies a head start toward completing this important objective.

Work to be done

Whether a tactical team is providing security at a public venue, conducting a hostage rescue, responding to a mass casualty incident, serving a warrant, or taking down a terror suspect, they need to have the education, training and capability to deal with the potential threat from explosives.

Beyond that, they also need to have a trained bomb tech as part of their team to prevent unacceptable delays, enhance the team’s safety and improve their ability to successfully complete the mission.

If your team is ready to advance to this next level, programs like the FBI’s Tactical Bomb Technician Course can help with the training required to prepare a bomb technician for tactical operations.

But even if you’re not there yet, there’s still important work you can do to improve your team’s ability to work in an environment filled with explosives threats. Reach out to your bomb squad partners to establish a relationship that will allow them to share some of their vital knowledge with your team.

The threat’s not going away, and there’s no time to waste, so get busy and be safe out there.

For more information on the National Tactical Officers Association and its annual training conference, please visit the website at http://www.ntoa.org

For more information about the FBI’s Tactical Bomb Technician Course (TBTC), Bomb Commanders and Technicians should speak to a Special Agent Bomb Technician at their local FBI Field Office, and should also refer to the TBTC information on the FBI’s Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal.

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