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Special Handling

New technologies and tools make unwrapping ‘suspicious packages’ safer and easier for bomb techs.

June 01, 2002  |  by Dave Douglas

X-ray Vision

Before X-ray systems became small enough and portable enough for EOD work, technicians were faced with the dilemma of hand entering a closed suspicious package, blowing the package up in place, or moving the package either by hand or with a rope-and-pulley system to another location and blowing it up.

Portable X-ray systems were added to the bomb tech tool-kit in 1973 when Golden Engineering of Centerville, Ind., introduced the Inspector. Along with Polaroid self-developing X-ray film, the Inspector revolutionized the job of the bomb technician. The tech could don a bomb suit, approach a suspected package, and, in a few minutes, have a fairly high-resolution picture of what was inside.

Golden Engineering’s XR150 is the latest in a line of portable X-ray generators used by bomb squads to identify the contents of suspicious packages.

The Inspector was retired by many agencies in 1998 and replaced with more powerful, lighter, and less power-hungry X-ray generators. Golden Engineering's latest systems, the XR200 and XR150, have assumed the role of the Inspector and are used worldwide.

Real-Time X-rays

Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) developed and markets the RTR-4 system, a real-time X-ray viewing system. By itself, the RTR-4 eliminates the need for the technician to make multiple approaches on a suspected device. And when used with a robot, it can eliminate the need to approach a device at all.

The RTR-4 can be attached to the robot along with an X-ray generator such as the Golden XR200 and can send the picture back via hardwire or wireless systems to a ruggedized notebook computer screen. If you don't get a good picture the first time due to density, just reset the XR200 remotely and shoot again.

Robots mated with real-time X-ray systems offer remote real-time viewing of explosive devices without endangering bomb techs.

SAIC is working on making the systems smaller, more easily portable, using color for density visualization, and maybe even someday adding 3D capabilities like those of a CAT scan.

Blast Containment

For many years bomb squads used heavy steel containment tubes to transport suspected or known explosive devices away from populated or sensitive areas. They were made of several thick steel tubes mounted inside each other in decreasing sized concentric circles, and they were open on the top to give the blast wave a place to go.

Most times the trailer or truck-mounted tubes safely transported the suspected device to an explosives range or deserted field where it could be safely detonated. But in an urban environment this method of transport becomes problematic.

Explosive containment vessels, like this one from NABCO, can reportedly withstand the blast energy of as much as 10 pounds of C4 plastic explosive.

People have a tendency to stare at bomb disposal trucks when they roll through a city. And an upwardly directed blast-should something go really wrong during transport- endangers all the looky-loos on the 12th floor of a bank building who are standing there watching from behind what they think is a highly protective sheet of glass. If the bomb goes off while they are looking down at it, that glass will actually shred their inquisitive little bodies into something the consistency of meatloaf fixings.

To solve this problem, companies like NABCO Inc. of Pittsburgh produce containment, transport, and storage vessels that don't vent upward. The company says you can detonate as much as 10 pounds of C4 plastic explosive inside a NABCO containment vessel without incurring any damage.

In the NABCO system, the sphere first contains the blast pressure and then off gasses dissipate the pressure through tiny holes precisely drilled in the steel. It sometimes takes hours for the pressure to drop enough that you can safely open the access door. But you could be standing two feet away from it when it goes off and not suffer any injuries. Note: I have never found anyone willing to do this.

Footing the Bill

Integration of some of these new technologies into your bomb squad's bag of tricks may take a little while. Funding is always a problem, but work toward it. Grants, some progressive thinking, a post-9/11 awareness of how agency leadership, local government, and the public can work together may be enough to tip the scales in your favor.

And for you first responders waiting for the bomb squad to arrive. Realize that bomb squads have a motto of "initial success or total failure." The stakes are high. And sometimes bomb technicians just need to take their time. Recognize that and support their operations. Sure, you can gripe about it, but keep it in perspective. Maybe if you ask nicely they'll pick up a sandwich for you on the way.

Real-time X-ray systems, like this one from SAIC, have saved bomb techs from having to make repeated trips into the killzone of suspect devices to retrieve exposed X-ray film.

Mind Over Machine

Chris Cherry is a scientist at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico and probably the nation's foremost scientific expert on explosive device mitigation. He was instrumental in the design of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robots as well as the percussion-actuated non-electric (PAN) disrupter used by most U.S. bomb squads and the FBI.

When asked what the future holds in the area of technology for bomb squads, Cherry said, "The field is experiencing exponential growth in technologies. X-ray technology is getting better and more precise everyday. Blast mitigation will become better with the introduction of new synthetic fibers and materials. But the greatest trend in the future for bomb work is the human factor.

"Bomb Technicians are more highly educated. The standards at the FBI's Hazardous Devices School at Redstone, Ala., are being raised. The academic standard is higher now than in the past five years, and it's going to get even higher than that in the future."

For More Information

Golden Engineering Inc.

Med-Eng Systems Inc.




Sandia National Labs

Sgt. Dave Douglas of the San Diego Police Dept. is a frequent contributor to POLICE Magazine. He graduated from the FBI's Hazardous Devices School in 1994 as a Certified Bomb Technician and served with the joint Fire and Police Bomb Squad.

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