Editor's Note: View our photo gallery, "Joining the Bomb Squad."
By the time you read this article, I should have completed the six-week basic course at the FBI/Army Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Ala. Which means I will be well on my way to becoming a certified bomb technician, a career aspiration that many people—including fellow cops—consider crazy.
I've realized a few things in the scant year-and-a-half since I became a member of my department's bomb squad.
Bomb squads don't just deal with the teenager building pipe bombs or Grandpa's grenades that he brought back from the Big One anymore.
It's a scary new world out there with more threats than ever. Incidents like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber bombings, and of course 9/11, have all solidified the stark realization that devastating acts of terrorism can happen here in America. And the principal weapon of the terrorist is the bomb.
A Growing Threat
The sad truth is that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have and will become more of a threat to American law enforcement and the American public.
And they are easy to make. Recipes for high explosives and various bomb designs have long been available to the public in books like "The Poor Man's James Bond" and "The Anarchist Cookbook." Worse, the Internet is a treasure trove of information for anyone who wants to make a bomb.
Contrary to the beliefs of some people, Internet instructions on how to make IEDs can be very accurate and very dangerous. They are no longer just step-by-step instructions on how to blow yourself up.
I attended a class last year taught by an explosives expert and forensic chemist. In a controlled setting, we actually manufactured some of the Internet recipes for high explosives like TATP, MEK, and HMTD. I was naive. I just didn't realize how easy it was to purchase the chemical precursors necessary to manufacture high explosives. A trip to Sally's Beauty Supply, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, and we were good to go.
So one reason I wanted to join the bomb squad is that the threat is prevalent.
A Changing Field
Another is that the role of the bomb tech has expanded greatly in the past few years and so has the quality of training available to officers who want to learn how to neutralize bombs.
The modern bomb tech wears many hats. He or she might help a SWAT team make an explosive entry; he might work with HAZMAT teams at a meth-lab, she might respond to a suspected large vehicle bomb. The list goes on and on.
Law enforcement bomb squads as we know them today really haven't been around too long. In the 1970s, the responsibility of handling explosives calls began to shift to local law enforcement agencies. According to Dale Goetz, director of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators (IABTI) and a bomb tech since 1974, prior to this the military was responsible for dealing with civilian incidents.
Goetz says the military's method of dealing with an explosive device was to B.I.P. or "blow in place." While effective at rendering the device safe, it wasn't always the best option for the local agencies. Something needed to change.
That something was a program established by the federal government to help local law enforcement agencies field qualified bomb squads. The federal government and the Army established the three-week bomb school in the early 1970s in an effort to provide more standardized training to non-military bomb technicians. This course, now known as the Hazardous Devices School, is administered by the FBI and is still held at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. It is the only U.S. government school to certify non-military bomb technicians.