Eight years after 9/11, EOD is still evolving

Editor’s Note: September 11, 2001 was the deadliest day in U.S. law enforcement history — 72 police officers lost their lives that terrible day. The sadness and the anger remain raw. To mark this solemn anniversary we present a series of outstanding columns on law enforcement’s role in the continuing fight against terrorism. Below PoliceOne WMD/EOD Columnist Shawn Hughes says that it wasn’t that long ago we called IEDs bombs, and most people weren’t concerned with them. In fact, bombs were so low on most peoples’ radar, it was hard to get funding for Bomb Squads, much less get staffing for them. Then came 9/11.

As I grow older, I often find that I’ve been concentrating so intently on the present that I’ve lost sight of where I’ve been. So, it was nice to hear from PoliceOne’s Senior Editor Doug Wyllie, asking me for my thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11.

It wasn’t that long ago we called IEDs bombs, and most people weren’t concerned with them. In fact, bombs were so low on most peoples’ radar, it was hard to get funding for Bomb Squads, much less get staffing for them. Bomb Technicians hadn’t stepped out into the spotlight yet, and Hollywood’s eyes were caught by SWAT and undercover narcotics work.

I remember talking about WMDs, and people figuratively patting me on my head, smiling, and saying, “that stuff just doesn’t happen here, Shawn.”

It was in that rough time frame I had written a very, very controversial piece on what I foresaw in the future of Bomb Disposal in the United States. I should write a follow-up — much of what I warned would happen has, in fact, come to pass.

Then came 9/11.

Today, you can’t flip a channel without some sort of reference to my line of work. There’s a recurring role for a retired Bomb Tech on Mythbusters. The lead character in CSI: Miami, Horatio Caine transferred to the crime scene unit after several years on a Miami-area PD Bomb Squad.

The history of Bomb Disposal in Public Safety is a story of tinkerers building some ingenious stuff to address problems that A.) we couldn’t afford to buy a solution to, and B.) oftentimes, there wasn’t a purchasable solution available.

Many of our best tools we stole from other career paths. The portable X-ray came from nondestructive testing people. Most people above the age of 40 have seen the medical version of our fiberscope. And, a tool set is a tool set, is a tool set. Our beat up, second-hand bread vans and converted ambulances might have had a fresh paint job, but they usually also had 100k plus on the odometer.

Today, there’s an industrial renaissance in Bomb Disposal. Perennial heavy-hitters like SAIC and General Dynamics elbow for floor space with small startups, all offering purpose-built tools. There are smorgasbords like the Authorized Equipment List and the Responder Knowledgebase that read like the Sears catalog of equipment. Grants are becoming increasingly plentiful thanks to our friends at Homeland Security.

And, networking and intelligence gathering! Used to be there were maybe two sites on the internet where Techs talked unclassified shop. Now, in addition to secured areas such as LEO Online and the snazzy new IABTI website, there are multiple intel news feeds of varying classification and commercial entities offering everything from simple newspaper-styled e-mails to secured meeting areas and up to the minute reports on bomb incidents around the globe. The negative I see to this aspect of our discipline is finding a reasonable middle ground where we as citizen-Officers can balance our interests in protecting our Nation with our absolute need for respecting sovereignty and privacy.

Techniques have taken a quantum leap, as well. There was a point in time our procedure guides were illustrated in the 1960’s — 1970’s. Thanks to our clever brothers and sisters in the military, we on the civil side are seeing a great deal of increased flexibility in tool selection and device interrogation. As far as the render safe practices that are being created out of need overseas right now, I can’t sign off on all of them being sound. I can understand their points of view as far as operational need and mission priority, but there seems to be an alarming watering down of who exactly is being allowed to determine if a suspect item is a bomb, and then who gets to disassemble it.

Today, people know who we are. I get at least one email a week by people asking how they can get directly into the Public Safety Bomb Disposal field. It’s a two-edged sword. On the plus side, it certainly doesn’t hurt when there’s an equipment or a manpower need. But, on the minus side, the people that build things to hurt people know us, too. Frighteningly, there’s more about Bomb Disposal methods and techniques available to the public now than ever before.

That means increased training. At the risk of being repetitive, much training used to be little more than every couple of months one Tech building something, and the other Techs trying to turn it off. Now, there are several companies providing any number of levels of intensity and skill level regarding bomb training. There are training aids galore — from simple, visually-accurate pipe bombs all the way to improvised nukes that are exact in every way minus the boom. Several colleges, as well as a few Federal agencies, also have offerings. At least two have gone the length to build entire training villages for the purpose of setting up elaborate bomber scenarios, replete with role-payers and plenty of video for the after action review. Some regions are even having meetings where they test each other.

One major thing that’s changed, however, is the expansion of multidiscipline training. Ask any old timer before EMA reared its ugly head. Used to be, every service didn’t even really talk at-scene, much less anywhere else. Now, large-scale exercises aren’t just for major metropolitan areas. Because many WMD agents are multi-hazard, it really is necessary for all the services to work together.

This doesn’t mean life is all peachy now, and that everything runs smoothly. There are still enormous growing pains, and where everyone fits in as far as command and control still doesn’t always make sense to me. I still see regulation and procedure regarding bombs and bomb calls authored without any input from the subject matter experts. And, in most places that I hear about, the pervasive attitude is continuing to be ‘just get things cleaned up quietly and quickly’ versus letting the Squads do their job, whether it takes an hour or a day.

All in all, as horrible, terrible, and disgusting as having our enemies drive aircraft full of our citizens into the landscape on our soil was to us in Public Safety Bomb Disposal, I can tell you none of those people died in vain. Their deaths sparked the flames feeding the Bomb Disposal train’s engine, and all I see is the engine continuing to gather steam, as it finally should.

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