Home News Stories 2006 July Inside a Terror Task Force - Bomb Techs

Inside a Terror Task Force - Bomb Techs

Inside a Terror Task Force
For Bomb Technicians, It's Never a Drill

07/17/06

Bomb technicians are trained to recognize and disrupt all kinds of explosives, many modeled on devices used in real-life events.
Bomb technicians are trained to recognize and disrupt all kinds of explosives, many modeled on devices used in real-life events.

FBI agent Pat Race was on his way home to meet his wife and in-laws for dinner one Friday in April when he got an urgent call: a suspicious package was spotted on a platform at Washington, D.C.’s busy train station. Race, a bomb technician, swung his truck around and drove straight to Union Station to do what bomb techs are uniquely wired to do—move (albeit gingerly) toward potentially lethal danger and render it safe.

Once upon a time the suspicious luggage—which caught the attention of a security dog trained to sniff out drugs and bomb-making materials—would have been dutifully examined by a station attendant. But since 9/11, the threat of terrorism—and bombings of commuter and subway trains in Spain (2004) and Great Britain (2005)—has ramped up the level of caution.

When the working dog “alerted on” two suitcases on April 21, police at Union Station called the Metropolitan Police Department, which called the FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) where Race works as a bomb tech on a Joint Terrorism Task Force. On the scene, Race joined three bomb techs from the Metropolitan Police Department and two more from the U.S. Capitol Police, whose domain lies just a few city blocks from the train station. Together with other first responders, they established a perimeter and incident command post and set up a “forward” space where the bomb techs could ply their delicate trade in relative peace.

“We really, really emphasize working together,” says Race, one of the 50 to 60 civilian bomb techs from nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies operating in the area. “Our skills complement each other.”

Far from a solitary vocation, bomb techs tend to work in teams, having all trained at the same place, the Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Alabama. The program, run by the FBI and the U.S. Army, trains technicians to recognize and disrupt all kinds of explosives, many modeled on devices used in real-life events. When they aren’t responding to calls, bomb techs are training for the next event.

“No day is the same,” Race says. “When we get a call, we don’t know whether something’s going to be real or not.” Mostly they’re not. Contents of “suspicious packages” found harmless included Washington Nationals season tickets and dirty diapers. A beeping garbage bag (it was a smoke alarm) prompted another call, and there are scores of “ham-sandwich” calls—when an abandoned lunch is the culprit.

WFO’s bomb squad averages two to three calls a week, though it varies. “You can go a week without a call-out,” Race says. “Sometimes you can’t go two hours. We’ve had three at once. All of them ended up being nothing.”

At the train station, the bomb techs divvied up duties and gear—one communicated with higher-ups, four did prep work and loaded X-rays to scan the luggage, and one donned a 90-pound protective suit to approach the suitcases and perform diagnostic tests.

“I really like the challenge of problem solving,” Race says, describing the appeal of his line of work. “A real bomber has all the answers and you have none. Our job is to figure it out so nobody gets hurt.”

The suspicious luggage didn’t contain explosives, just clothes, perfumes, electronics, and a variety of exotic cooking spices. The coast was clear, this time.

“It’s a real threat here,” Race says, describing the D.C. area. “It’s something we deal with every day.”

Links: Inside the D.C. Terror Task Force, Part 1 | Counterterrorism story index