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Robotics for Bomb Squads
Written by Kathy Marks
Advances in law enforcement have historically included ideas to help keep officers safer. Bomb sniffing canines, bulletproof vests, armored vehicles, and even improvements in weapons and ammunition have helped reduce officer fatalities. Situations that officers encounter have changed and many more incidents involve bombs and other explosives. Bomb squads have looked for safer ways to do things, sought better training and learned to use bomb robots to keep bomb squad officers at a safe distance.
Southern Illinois University and Carbondale, Ill.
Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale and the City of Carbondale, Illinois Bomb Disposal Unit used a combined team to acquire funding and provide adequate manpower. This approach of coordinating with other agencies is also being used by other bomb squads, such as the Nebraska State Patrol along with the Lincoln Fire and Omaha Police Departments.
SIU and Carbondale acquired a bomb disposal robot, the Remotec ANDROS F6A, through a $150,000 federal Homeland Security Grant administered through the Illinois Terrorism Task Force (ITTF) and the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS).
Bomb Squad Commander Bennie Vick (now Williamson County, IL Sheriff) and two other members, Lt. Mark Goddard and Lt. Keith Stiff, served on the bomb squad over ten years. They attended bomb squad training at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL, which is sponsored by the FBI and U. S. Army and is the only school in the country that can certify bomb technicians.
The six-week course includes basic explosives handling and demolition, “render safe” training, weapons of mass destruction training, and use of robots. Newer member Det. Chad Beights also attended this training because every member must be able to do any of the required tasks.
Since Redstone Arsenal is the only facility that provides the bomb squad training, all bomb techs have consistent instruction. They can travel anywhere in the country and work with other units with all of them understanding the same information and commands.
SIU and the City of Carbondale decided they needed such a unit when a suspicious suitcase was left at the SIU Police Department and they had to call Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis to respond, which involved a several hours’ delay. Their bomb squad now covers the area south of I-64 in Illinois but they have been deputized by the U. S. Marshals to be able to travel nationwide and assist other departments when there are situations necessitating large groups of bomb experts, such as the Olympics or disaster situations.
Their unit can utilize the robot to handle situations for the Illinois State Police Tactical Response Teams and other agencies, assisting in communicating with barricaded subjects, and taking objects to and from such subjects. They can also send the robot into a building to use its cameras to locate a subject and make an assessment of the risks in entering the building.
What Can a Robot Do?
The Remotec Andros F6A robot has several cameras for reconnaissance use and audio and video capabilities. Lt. Goddard stated “the robot is versatile enough that it can go low to look under vehicles and the camera on top is able to be elevated tall enough to see over fences and some lower roofs.” He said the camera can really zoom in, enough that it could read the label on a pill bottle in a vehicle.
Lt. Keith Stiff added that “The robot can pick up things and carry them; it can even drag an injured person from the danger zone. It is capable of firing rounds at packages to render the device safe, not personal offense rounds.” The robot can render devices safe by exposing their contents and separating the components and the results can be remotely amplified with the digital zoom to see if the device is dangerous. The mounting ports on the robot are interchangeable and different devices can be deployed depending on the package or object to be identified and rendered safe.
Commander Bennie Vick reported that the robot has the capability of towing a car and even operating in less than perfect conditions, such as muddy areas. He said the fiber optic cable allows it to be deployed 1200 feet away from the operator and the video monitor can be connected to a larger screen, such in a command center, to allow several people to view the scene at the same time. The robot can carry air quality monitoring equipment and can even use equipment from other emergency response units that their own departments don’t currently have available.
Vick demonstrated the ability of the Andros F6A to climb up and down stairs, pick up and transport items and send reconnaissance pictures to the computer monitor. Vick was able to sit in a remote location using only the computer monitor and the robot’s video to send it up and down stairs and around corners. He pointed out the necessity of always practicing working remotely with the robot in order to be proficient working its controls in real life situations requiring immediate action.
The Andros F6A can carry an x-ray machine to a suspicious package allowing the officers to stay a safe distance away. The machine has digital technology which scans images that can be downloaded to a computer and sent instantly to the Bomb Data Center, Military EOD units or Department of Homeland Security. Experts can help them identify devices and make suggestions on how to disarm them. They started out with x-ray machines similar to Polaroid cameras that were low resolution and if the pictures weren’t good enough, the only option was to go back and take more.
Vick pointed out that as they render suspicious devices safe, “we use different rounds in the Percussion Actuated Nonelectric (PAN) Disrupter for different jobs, with the velocity depending on what is needed” for that job. He said that some rounds are used for soft targets such as cardboard boxes or plastic lunch pails and things of that nature. It has a laser to assure an accurate hit when aiming the weapon to neutralize suspicious packages.
Their bomb squad has handled pipe bombs, incendiary devices, old dynamite, which is unstable and volatile and even ether. Their training includes render safe techniques for getting rid of deteriorated explosive devices such as WWII relics brought home by soldiers including grenades and shells. They were even called to dispose of a live mortar round found under a home.
Lt. Mark Goddard, current Bomb Squad Commander, reported that the most unusual thing they have dealt with was a call to handle a large quantity of ether cylinders that were distributed during the Cold War era as part of supplies for field hospitals in the event of nuclear attack, since ether was the anesthesia used at the time. Stiff noted that when it crystallizes, it becomes as explosive as nitroglycerine. There are lots of commercial explosives in their area due to farming and construction activities and some have been sitting around for years, prior to when stricter controls were initiated.
Goddard noted that the robot has night vision and lighting capabilities. Training for bomb techs includes practical scenarios that are recreated from real incident reports from bomb squads all over the country. They also receive bulletins from law enforcement agencies about incidents. They are kept informed about devices and issues that occur in other countries and by military EOD. They prepare themselves with scenario training centering around incidents that might occur in their area.
Bomb Squad Coordination
Sgt. Rod Getting of the Nebraska State Patrol Bomb Squad said that their squad uses the Remotec Mark V (MKV) robot, which is larger than the Andros F6A. He said “It has been used in situations involving sand, mud and rain. You can pack the tread and sheer bolts if they get packed with mud or snow, but generally it is much better than the smaller robots in navigating such situations.” He said that lighter snow was not usually a problem, but six inches of snow was too much.
Sgt. Getting said the MKV has “a multi-shot dearming tool for multiple devices. We purchased this after an incident where a student brought a bag to school with over 20 devices in it.” This gave them the capability to be able use the robot on more than one device in the same incident. He stated that the MKV “can be armed with disrupters that use a variety of different rounds for different targets. One round pushes water. The goal is to use the water or other projectiles to open the package and separate components. Sometimes this works without the explosives reacting and sometimes you do get an explosion.”
Getting’s bomb squad is affiliated with the Omaha Police and Lincoln Fire Departments bomb squads. They purchased compatible robots to be able to assist each other with parts in case of a breakdown when the robot was needed. They have MOU’s (memo of understanding) with all the other bomb squads in their state in order that they can provide mutual aid to each other.
The Nebraska State Patrol Bomb Squad has been used in many situations, such as those involving explosives, meth labs, Cold War relics, unstable explosives or munitions from WWII soldiers, farm and constructions explosives, and they have also assisted on SWAT calls with barricaded suspects. Their goal is to coordinate with other state and federal law enforcement agencies to provide intelligence about possible threats and Getting cited one situation where that worked well.
Getting said “When the smiley face bomber made his trip through Nebraska, we knew right away he was here because we had information from the Iowa/Illinois Squads and knew what his devices looked like.”
The Columbus, Ohio Bomb Squad uses a variety of robots and is operated through their fire department and they are commissioned police officers in their department because they also conduct investigations. They have a Remotec Andros F6A but also a larger robot, the BOZ I.
Captain Steve Saltsman, Columbus OH Bomb Squad Captain, Columbus Division of Fire, advised that “the BOZ I robot comes from Spain and weighs over 1300 pounds. It is not for everyone.” He pointed out that Columbus is the fifteenth largest urban area in the country and their fire department has a full time bomb squad.
The BOZ I robot is made specifically to deal with larger issues, such as suicide bombers and car bombs, which were their primary concerns when they bought it. It runs on hydraulics and is much stronger than robots with electric motors. It has a long, articulated arm and can pick up items and has tremendous strength. It can roll a car over and its grippers are like a Hurst tool and allow it to pop open car doors and trunks.
Saltsman’s department also has an Andros F6A robot from Remotec and one even smaller robot and each has its own kind of uses. Saltsman stated “We use the robots as much as possible” to keep their officers safe. He mentioned one situation where safety was an issue when a suspect was putting pipe bombs around the city. He left two pipe bombs in a Porta-John® at a construction site and the toilet was directly over a partially uncovered gas line. The robot was able to remove the pipe bombs and take them to a safe place for disposal.
He noted that it takes a lot of practice to be proficient with the BOZ I or other robots and learning how to operate them efficiently. Part of the training with the BOZ I involves being able to remove single quarters from a stack of quarters and restacking them. Their robots allow them to use surveillance to minimize the time that bomb squad officers have to spend close up at a scene and they can often take care of packages where they are located.
A Valuable Tool
Bomb squad officers come from different types of departments and the needs of their departments determine the size and uses of the bomb squad robots. For instance, large urban areas such as Columbus have full time bomb squad officers who are able to train more regularly and their equipment reflects their more urban large city needs.
Smaller areas such as Carbondale, Illinois and Southern Illinois University had to combine their forces to be able to activate their own bomb squad. Their need was just as great because the nearest bomb squad was hours away. Being surrounded by rural areas had led to their use in handling construction materials, old munitions, and even Cold War materials such as unstable ether containers.
Bomb robots are a tool, just as anything else any law enforcement officer or fire department officer might use. They are very specialized and very important in keeping bomb squad officers a distance away from explosive situations as much as possible, but the officers who comprise the bomb squad are still the ones who must handle a situation and determine when they need to do hands-on work after the robot has provided surveillance in some situations.
Training is critical. The Redstone Arsenal is the only facility in the United States who trains bomb squad technicians and the training is standardized because of that. That training must be complemented by regular training in the safe disposal of confiscated explosives as well as in competent use of the bomb robots.
All of the departments surveyed indicated the necessity of regular training. Law enforcement tools are only as effective as the person using them, whether the tool is a firearm or a robot and improper handling of a bomb robot could result in costly damages or its inability to complete doing its mission in keeping an officer safe at a distance.
Coordination of bomb squad units with others in their area and providing intelligence information about the types of explosives or incendiaries encountered to national databases helps keep all the bomb squads safer. They are able to send information to central locations and consult immediately by computer to see if scanned images are similar to others in the databases and receive information about how to solve their problem. The need for interagency cooperation may be as great as any in law enforcement for bomb squads.
Kathy Marks is a previous contributor to LAW and ORDER Magazine and has worked as a child abuse investigagtor for more than 25 years. She also teaches law enforcement classes for mobile training units in Illinois. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2012
Rating : 10.0
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