Police Academy sniffs for bombs

By Lindsay Carroll

‘ This is the fourth installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled… ‘ This is the fourth installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy, a 15-week training course run by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Tick, tick, tick.

‘Originally, bomb squads were trained to turn the lights off and listen,’ said Detective Andre Henderson to the students of the Citizens’ Police Academy.

Sure enough, with the flick of a light switch, the students’ attention turned from Henderson’s slide show to a ticking cardboard box sitting on a table in front of a student.

‘All I want you to do is pay attention to your surroundings,’ said Henderson. ‘We walk around, and we scan for things that don’t belong.’

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team has five certified technicians and seven support team members who are trained to respond to all of the bomb calls in the city. They conduct post-blast investigations and provide safety information to the public.

Last year, they responded to 40 calls, one-quarter of which were real, said Henderson.

‘Most of these are generated from individuals wanting to get back at somebody,’ he said.

The scene

Henderson asked students to leave the classroom before he set up the ‘kill room,’ an exercise to teach them how to notice unusual items in their surroundings.

The students hesitantly entered the room a few minutes later. They pointed out several things wrong with the scene — a pipe bomb on the floor, a strange kit on the windowsill, a grenade on the piano — and then, one student stepped in front of a motion sensor attached to the wall.

‘You’re dead,’ said Henderson. The class laughed, but many students still seemed hesitant to patrol the room.

‘We’re always looking around,’ said Henderson. ‘Always scanning the area, always moving.’

The truck

When the squad gets a call, they get a short message on their pagers with the details of the situation, said Detective Fred Crawford.

Then, they get in the bomb truck to respond.

It is a 5-ton vehicle with blinding red-and-blue flashing lights and tires that appeared to be about 2 feet tall. Inside, the detectives stored their bomb suits and equipment. A flat screen television hung on the wall next to an x-ray machine, which Crawford said they call the ‘bread maker’ because of its appearance. On the screen, police can view X-ray pictures of the bomb from their truck.

Every bomb squad in the United States will get a shiny new bomb truck from the government, said Crawford, and each squad will have the same equipment.

Pittsburgh received its own $500,000 truck a few months ago, he said.

The robot

Then there’s Bulldog, the bomb squad’s robot ally.

Detective Sheldon Williams demonstrated how to maneuver the huge machine — which doesn’t look exactly like a bulldog, as the police call it.

The robot operates on two batteries and four tires, as well as smaller wheels with tracks for traction and four cameras for police to view the suspicious object safely from the truck. It has a speaker and a microphone in case the police need to communicate with someone using the robot.

The robot has a large metal arm with a grip used for handling the object and a gun on its side, which can shoot out water or a projectile very powerfully. The goal is to disrupt the system, said Williams. The robot’s gun should pierce the object before the bomb can explode. That discharges the bomb instead of ‘detonating’ it, as the public often thinks bomb technicians do, said Henderson.

Williams said explosions are categorized based on high order — that is, if the bomb accomplished its purpose — and low order, if it did not.

He turned to the students watching the robot and asked, ‘Can this area withstand a high order detonation?’

A couple of students asked about the strength of the building and the bomb before giving an answer.

‘The first thing people think about is construction and the size of the bomb,’ said Williams. ‘But the answer is ‘No.’ There is life in here.’

Henderson said the bomb squad’s first priority is to evacuate the area. But even with a robot, one member of the team, dressed in a 70-pound bomb suit, will have to inspect the area where the potential bomb is located.

‘If I’m standing over a suspicious package and it blows up,’ said Crawford, ‘the only thing the suit will do is keep me intact so my family can see me in a casket.’