Much is known about many of law enforcement’s special teams: dive team, air watch, SWAT. In contrast, the hazardous devices team of your department (if you have one) is one that has intentionally kept itself out of the limelight, for good reason.
Good reasons aside, it’s hard to get into a special team if you can’t find out anything about it. This article is here to help you as a general primer on what the bomb squad is about and what a prospective candidate might go through to be able to pin on the coveted “crab.”
In the United States, bombs are classed into ordnance (bombs that are built in factories) and Improvised Explosive Devices (bombs built by individuals). People that respond to, identify, and dispose of bombs are divided into three categories: military, public safety, and UXO.
UXO technicians (the acronym of UnExploded Ordnance) systematically search for and clear ordnance that is left behind on current and former government bomb ranges. Military EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technicians handle both IEDs and ordnance on Department of Defense property, and handle any ordnance found on non-DOD property.
Public safety bomb technicians handle IEDs that are found on non-Department of Defense property.
In addition to IEDs, public safety bomb technicians also routinely destroy old and unserviceable ammunition, commercial explosives, and fireworks. They investigate where explosions have occurred, prepare reports, and give testimony in court. Technicians also train fellow officers and the public on explosives recognition and response. They accompany other teams to search out and neutralize booby traps. Savvy departments also task them as the designated explosive breacher.
One common misconception about the job of a bomb tech is that it centers around searching for bombs. While hazardous devices teams do conduct searches in areas where VIPs will be visiting, generally they don’t when responding to bomb threats. Simply put, it’s due to the fact that a technician has to view everything as suspicious until ruled out; a person familiar with the area can more easily spot things that are out of place, tampered with, or suspicious.
Another misconception is the Hollywood-fueled notion that technicians must “suit up and go downrange” on all suspicious items. While we can and do take this approach to threats, the preferred method is to accomplish the task as remotely as possible. In the same vein, we can also thank Hollywood for the concept some people have that somehow a red wire is always at the heart of a bomb trigger. Truthfully, some bombs can’t be disarmed by cutting a circuit or replacing a safety feature, and that’s when we have to get thoughtful and creative.
“Lumping” is yet another tendency that leads to confusion about a bomb tech’s job. Despite what many people believe, only bomb technicians are bomb technicians. Fireworks pyrotechnicians or special effects (sfx) crews are not. Neither are military engineers, civil demolitionists, explosive detection dog handlers, explosive breachers, explosive handlers, above- or below-ground miners, rock quarry blasters, explosive products salesmen, ammunition handlers (unless they are British), vulnerability analysts, or bombing scene investigators.
Honestly, there are many WMD people who are not bomb techs. Just because someone received some training at some point in explosives does not make him or her automatically capable or knowledgeable in the specialist field of rendering safe a bomb; something to think about the next time an “expert” comes up and offers to help you figure out what’s in the suspicious package that is holding up traffic.
It’s kind of like practicing medicine: never let a podiatrist stick his hands in your mouth; something is probably up that you will regret later.
Hazardous devices teams, formerly called bomb squads, can be found as parts of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Less common are teams that are parts of fire departments and emergency management agencies.
All hazardous devices teams are becoming increasingly controlled by the FBI. While hazardous devices teams are primarily under the command and control of their agency, the FBI has an optional National Accreditation Program, and accredited hazardous devices teams benefit from free continuation training and equipment. In addition, accredited units can send new technicians to the FBI’s hazardous devices school located in Huntsville, Ala., at Redstone Arsenal.
What to Expect
So, what can you, the prospective technician candidate expect? First, most teams follow the FBI guidelines for candidate selection. You should have five years of experience in law enforcement and five continuous years at one agency. Even though most teams are part-time assignments, you need to have a full-time attitude and expectations. As a bomb tech, you can count on being called out at any time; off-days, weekends, and holidays are no exception.
Obviously, you have to volunteer for this assignment. Although the attrition rate is slightly growing due to retirements, there are no plans to start press gangs any time soon.
You should be in decent health and capable of operating under severe stress. Some of the job entails grunt work. Digging holes and carrying heavy tools are routine tasks. If you are prone to heat stress injuries or are claustrophobic, being a tech is not for you.
Also, if reading comprehension or interpreting diagrams is a stumbling block for you, this career path will prove to be very difficult.
Not required, but highly recommended, is an interest in gadgets, or how things work. People with an aptitude for handling mechanical or electronics generally fare well, but this ability isn’t mandatory. Neither, surprisingly, is a background in explosives.
Before deciding to go ahead with becoming a bomb technician, you’ll have to honestly consider your personal compatibility with the work. This evaluation includes some aspects of the job that might not have occurred to you when first contemplating this career move.
Allergies—You may be allergic to explosives or materials involved.
Large debts—You may be required to obtain a national security clearance as part of your job. Large debts are a disqualifier, the rationale goes, because you may be at a greater risk to accept money for the classified data you will have access to.
Team spirit and loner behavior—Hazardous devices teams are teams made up of self-motivated individuals. You may spend a lot of time working alone or with a partner, but then you may have to function as part of a much larger group. You should be able to work as a team, but be self-starting as well.