Situation Report: Bomb squads and the emerging threats
By K. Todd Wilber
System Planning Corp., Arlington, Va.
In the wake of the recent London subway bombings, which were perhaps the first suicide bombings in a major Western city, we’re reminded that technology alone cannot prevent a mass-casualty attack. Resolving a suicide bombing requires a bomb squad to face a threat they currently might not be prepared to handle, an individual determined to succeed even at the cost of his own life, and possibly more: a chemical or biological device, a dirty bomb, or even a nuclear weapon.
Some experts prefer to believe that such threats are remote here in the United States. British officials would probably disagree. The unthinkable is moving closer to our shores. Some experts would focus primarily on acquiring new technology, and not doing what is the hardest, but probably most important, work: developing tactics, training and skills. In London, some technology, especially surveillance cameras, paid off. But it’s proper training, tactics and skills that have proved most effective there — and could make an important difference here.
Current bomb squad training
Through the FBI, non-military bomb technicians receive training and recurring certification at the FBI-U.S. Army Hazardous Devices School in Hunts¬ville, Ala. hds teaches the basic elements necessary for public safety officers to diagnose, render safe (disarm) and dispose of improvised explosive devices. Students also receive introductory-level instruction on identifying and responding to suspect weapons of mass destruction. In six weeks, a public safety officer who might not have had a background in explosive ordnance disposal is certified to respond to many potentially deadly scenarios.
This training is currently focused primarily on criminal threats with the intent to murder or destroy property. But today’s training might not be enough to counter emerging threats, and so our training must intensify, and soon.
Fortunately for the United States, domestic bombers today tend to work alone and have been limited by their economic and technological resources. As a result, their devices usually are small and therefore less destructive, with simple circuits and gunpowder as the explosive filler. Pipe bombs are the most prevalent ied used in the United States. While a single injury is unacceptable to the bomb technician, most domestic ieds are incapable of the devastation seen elsewhere in the world. The public safety bomb technician is well trained and equipped for this threat, but not for what might be coming next.
“Suicide bomber,” “vehicle bomb” and “remote-controlled improvised explosive device” are terms that the average American probably is more familiar with than the name of their Congressional representatives. To date, the United States has experienced very few incidents involving these tools of terrorism seen daily overseas, and most recently in the heart of London. While many citizens would like to believe that their public safety officers train daily on these emerging threats, reality tells a different story.
Expectations and limitations
The FBI recommends that each of the 420-plus accredited bomb squads in the United States train for at least 16 hours a month. Most bomb technicians are part-time members and have other primary law enforcement duties such as narcotics, homicide, arson, or patrol. Making room in their schedule for two days of training is difficult at best. In many cases, they also must perform maintenance on their equipment in the same time period. As a result, their training is focused on what they’ll most likely encounter on their next incident.
It should be noted that many bomb technicians work off the clock, on their own time, to perform their training and maintenance and in some cases use personal funds for small purchases. Even within major metropolitan areas with full-time bomb squads, limited resources make it difficult to significantly increase the capability of our country’s bomb squads to meet the emerging threats.
There is help out there, however. The National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board www.nbscab.net works to improve the capability of all accredited bomb squads. nbscab was formed to provide feedback from the public safety bomb technician community to the FBI, the federal agency responsible for certification of non-military bomb technicians. The NBSCAB has developed into a self-regulating body for the non-military bomb technician community that provides guidance on best practices and accreditation criteria.
Preparation for emerging threats
Our nation’s bomb technicians will respond and apply all of the resources available to them to minimize the impact of any attack. However, most will find it difficult to manage the incident as effectively as their international counterparts, but for reasons that might seem counterintuitive.
In reality, lack of sophisticated technology specifically developed to counter this threat is the smallest challenge. Rather, lack of forward-thinking policies and innovative training regimens are the two greatest weaknesses hindering our nation’s responders.
U.S. bomb technicians have mastered the use of tools and procedures to render-safe pipe bombs. Most devices in this country are intended to kill or wound a single person or a very small number of people in the immediate area. The tools, tactics, procedures, training and policy are commensurate with the threat. But as the sophistication and scale of consequences of the emerging threats increase, our nation’s bomb technicians must be prepared to respond with great effectiveness while minimizing risk.
An informal survey of vehicle-related bomb squad responses was conducted for the period 2002–2004. Generally, incidents could be categorized as suspected assassination attempts or suspicious circumstances involving a vehicle in a high-value area such as a courthouse. Again, U.S. bomb techs know how to quickly and successfully resolve incidents using small devices. But they would clearly be out of their element when responding to a suspicious vehicle that could be carrying a large device, on the order of the Oklahoma City bombing or the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Policy-makers often look for a “silver bullet” that can resolve entire classes of threats with minimal collateral damage and expense. While no one can argue that this is ideal, it is also unrealistic. A bomb technician can’t use a single render-safe tool and procedure any more than a mechanic can use a single wrench to fix a car.
Even more than vehicle bombs, dealing with potential suicide bombers requires thoughtful preparation and training, not simply technology-based responses.
Simple measures, large impact
To minimize the learning curve and reaction time to the emerging threats, policy-makers must make an investment of time. Even tabletop exercises that surface the critical decisions required to resolve an incident involving a suspected suicide bomber or large vehicle bomb could significantly reduce the loss of life. Training is an investment that always has a high rate of return and long shelf-life. Investing in the competence of the responders will pay the greatest dividend to the community they serve.
“New equipment would be nice, but we spend 80% of our time maintaining the equipment we already have,” commented one state police bomb technician.
Technological solutions have their place, but are not a higher priority than training. Operators are not here to serve technology, rather technology is intended to serve them. Only through training and experience will bomb technicians learn the limitations of their current suite of tools, and that training must be based on sound policies that take into account the emerging threats — before we see them on our own shores. Only then should new tools be sought.
Before joining System Planning Corp., Arlington, Va., K. Todd Wilber served with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detach¬ment – Delta (Delta Force), Ft. Bragg, N.C., as a Special Operations Explosive Ordnance Disposal Operator. He has also served as a program director at the Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Office of Emergency Response, in Washington, D.C., where he managed first responder programs, and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif., as a project manager for two federal response programs.