Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Bomb Squad

By Annette Dashofy

Citizens’ Police Academy this week was a real hands-on experience. Maybe a little TOO hands on. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The topic was “Recognizing the Explosive Threat” and our instructors were Detectives Andre Henderson and Sheldon Williams of the Bomb Squad. Class began with a Power Point presentation and lecture.

The Pittsburgh Police Bomb Squad has four certified EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) techs and a support system of eight. And one BULLDOG. Last year, they answered 51 class one calls. That’s a call that consists of some type of suspicious item or package. A class three call is a bomb threat. Eight of those 51 calls involved actual IEDs and four of them were simulated devices.

There are two common types of IED (Improvised Explosive Device): Non electric such as pipe bombs AND electric which are more complex and include explosives, a power source such as a cell phone or a batter, wires, and an initiator.

Another threat that you may not think of is the media. Specifically, live television feeds. Imagine this scenario: A suspicious package has been identified and the bomb squad called in. A live news truck sets up shop and reports broadcast that the area has been cleared and the bomb squad is going on. Meanwhile, down the street, the bomber is watching all this from the local K-Mart. He watches as the EOD tech approaches his package, places a call on his cell phone and…BOOM.

Okay, what should YOU do if you find a suspicious package that might be a bomb? RAIN.

Recognize the threat
Avoid it.
Isolate the hazard (clear the area)
Notify the appropriate resources and authorities

Do NOT use your cell phone to make the call. Phones and pagers might set the bomb off. Use a landline OR move AT LEAST a football field away before calling on your cell phone.

Then we watched a video on the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, the only bomb squad school in the country that’s recognized by the FBI.

And, finally, back to that “hands-on” stuff.

Our class broke into two teams. One team headed to the “kill room” while my team were introduced to BULLDOG, the robot. Named after a former bomb squad member, the robot is an impressive-looking piece of equipment that takes a large portion of the risk away from his human teammates. BULLDOG (Bomb Urban Logistics Landmine Disposal Ordinance Guru) operates via fiber-optic wires and can be driven from a control board into a hazardous area to do certain tasks. Humans do ultimately need to go in and perform the hands-on work of handling the bomb, but BULLDOG can sometimes disable the threat or can at least help determine how much of a threat there really is.

BULLDOG has a very firm handshake. I can vouch for that fact as I somehow was “volunteered” to offer up my fist to be gripped by the robotic hand. However, his grasp only applies about 40 psi, so the operator must use extreme care in HOW a package is picked up, as it can (and has) slipped out. Dropping bombs is not good.

And my hand survived.

Next, the class teams swapped and we took our turn in the “kill room” where we were expected to locate and call out potential threats. Most were obvious. The hand grenade, the landmine, the sticks of dynamite. But the small motion detector with the blasting caps would have taken us all out.

One of the main points the detectives wanted us to “get” was that a bomb can be anything. Look around your own house. Hydrogen peroxide plus fingernail polish remover plus citrus fruit equals bomb components.

Back in the kill room we continued to look for suspicious packages, knowing that a bomb can look like anything. Another point that was stressed is to look for what does not belong. Like the homeland security book sitting on the table in the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. THAT was the final bomb in our kill room. It was a hollowed out book that contained the IED.

To wrap up this week’s report, let me offer a couple of terms the insiders use. An explosion is called a “high order.” A fizzle is called a “low order.” The bomb squad aims to keep those high orders to a bare minimum.

Next week: Crime Scene Investigation


Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining what IED stands for, I've always wondered. I see mental health isn't the only profession where acronyms abound!

Joyce Tremel said...

Interesting stuff, Annette!

Just how big of an explosion does H2O2, nail polish remover and citrus fruit make? I'm thinking I might want to clean out my bathroom cabinet. I'd hate to see the trash can explode.

Annette said...

Joyce, I just don't know. While the detective was very willing to share the ingredients, he didn't want to go into the exact amounts and mixing instructions. Hmm. I wonder why. I just kept thinking about old MacGyver episodes...

And, Tory, the acronyms were amazing. It's like learning a foreign language. The guys are so used to using them, they forget that the rest of us haven't a clue as to what they're talking about unless we ask.

Joyce Tremel said...

I'll ask Josh--my in-house science geek.

Ramona said...

Annette, this Academy sounds like great fun. I love the jargon: RAIN, BULLDOG, high order, fizzle.

Most of all, I love "kill room." I think that's what I'm going to start calling my office.

Anonymous said...

Remember that scene in The Terminator where he comes back from the grocery store will all the chemicals he needs (I remember bleach and corn syrup) to make plasticine, and no real food?

Annette said...

Ramona, I think "fizzle" was more my word than his. He used "low order" to refer to a detonation that simply fizzled like a Fourth of July sparkler. Things that went BOOM, he referred to a "high order."

Martha, I never saw THE TERMINATOR. But I had a major crush on MacGyver.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I'm wondering if dry ice and water in a 2 liter plastic bottle qualifies as an IED.

It's explosive, but not sure if it does any real damage.

Great stuff, Annette.

Annette said...

Wilfred, I'm thinking that might qualify as low order. Not sure. But since it involves water, it isn't likely to be incendiary, so I'm guessing even if it qualifies as an IED, it isn't the kind of thing that the EOD techs are going to lose sleep over.

Joyce Tremel said...

I asked science geek son how big of an explosion the prior mentioned ingredients would make and he said, "Not very." Then he went on to give me a complicated chemistry lecture until my eyes glazed over. But he did say you can make TNT very easily in any lab.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

The dry ice thing sounds like a massive bomb going off. But you're right, no fire or heat.

Anonymous said...

Very cool report!

I'm going to have to go back and read your previous blogs about this.

As far as combining common items to make explosions, let's just say our junior high chemistry teacher retired after my class finished.

Teachers are not paid nearly enough.

Kathy Sweeney

Joyce Tremel said...

Kathy S., I can only imagine that poor teacher's state of mind after that. Just how many teachers did you force to retire? :-)

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Annette, very cool report. I bet with every class you take your muse is doing the jig! I hope your keeping a file on all those potential story ideas! Well done!