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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Sep. 19, 200112:00 PM EST

Riding with the bomb squad

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Business brisk since the terrorist attacks
by: Bill Johnson

Bomb Squad would welcome more training

With people and businesses looking for ways to help the nation in its war against terrorism, JSO Assistant Chief Mark Bowen said the JSO will talk to anyone interested in sponsoring additional specialized training for its bomb squad.

“We’re always looking for training, even though the sheriff’s office has been great in giving us training,” he said. “There’s always schools that we’d like to send officers to that we sometimes don’t have the money to do so.”

Bowen said JSO can’t accept money. But if someone is interested in paying for tuition for such training, or per diem or motel fees, “we’d be more than happy to talk to them about that.”

As the front lines of America’s war on terrorism take shape right in our own backyards, the nation’s fire and police officers, while always on duty, have seemingly been drafted to join in the battle.

Nowhere else, with the exception of New York City and Washington, D.C., was this more evident than in downtown Jacksonville last Friday, when several buildings were evacuated after a suspicious piece of baggage with foreign writing on it was discovered at the Greyhound Bus Terminal.

While the whole focus of city’s fire/rescue and law enforcement personnel centered on the transit hub and the safety of the people nearby, a select group within the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was slowly and deliberately following the procedures laid out for just such an emergency.

The fact that the luggage in question turned out to be a bag full of clothes instead of an explosive device makes no difference to the Jacksonville Bomb Squad. Until you know that for sure, life and death hangs in the balance. Theirs and yours. So, precautions are taken. Procedures are followed. No exceptions.

On Friday, that meant people in nearby office buildings had to stand out in a constant drizzle as police cordoned off a six-block area. But after the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, no one was complaining, said JSO Assistant Chief Mark Bowen, head of the department’s detective division and bomb squad.

“We always stress: Do what you’re trained to do. Do it in a safe manner,” Bowen said recently. “The other day, we inconvenienced a lot of people for about an hour and half or two hours. But we can’t do things quickly. We have a system and we go by that system, and that’s to keep people from getting hurt.”

Bowen and Lt. Randy Parmer, commanding officer of the department’s intelligence unit, recently discussed the department’s bomb squad and its role in the war on terrorism our nation faces.

There have been six bomb threats since Sept. 11, including one at City Hall the day of the terrorist attack. In that instance the building was evacuated, but because it was a phoned threat and no potential device was found, the bomb squad was not called out. Regular patrolmen and detectives will conduct searches, possibly with bomb-sniffing dogs, on such occasions. Only when a device is found does JSO call on its special unit.

In the first eight months of this year, Parmer said, the bomb squad has been called out 109 times. Only a small fraction of those calls, however, have resulted in the discovery of any kind of explosive, and nothing along the lines of what might have been feared to be in the Greyhound station.

Since the terrorist attacks, both officers were expecting the worst: a continuous rash of threats. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, even though six calls is a bit more than average for one week.

Still, Bowen said, “It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.”

But both are certain people’s sense of awareness is heightened.

“I think right now,” Parmer said, “there’s probably, naturally, a little more tendency to be more cautious than they were in the past. Things that might not have been suspicious two weeks ago or even last week prior to Tuesday are suspicious now.”

And, while certainly happy not to be overactive chasing bomb threats, both men are certain Jacksonville is prepared for a wide variety of scenarios concerning explosives.

The bomb squad, which has been in existence since the early 1970s and was probably one of the first in the state, according to Bowen, has nine certified bomb technicians. The squad has agreements with Clay, Baker, and Nassau counties — and will soon add St. Johns — to provide expert assistance. But it has been as far as Tallahassee and South Georgia.

“It’s a fairly expensive proposition to put together a bomb squad,” he said. “There’s nobody really around here that’s certified to handle explosives. I mean, any detective can investigate a bomb threat, but to actually handle a device takes a bomb technician.”

When it comes to mutual assistance calls from anywhere concerning a bomb, the word “no” is not an option, Bowen said.

“I mean, we don’t have a heck of a lot of choice,” he said. “What are you going to tell them: ‘All right, we’re not coming.” And a policeman has to handle it and he gets blown up. We can’t do that.”

Most of the squad’s real bomb calls involve less sophisticated explosive devices, such as gas cans and pipe bombs, most of which are put together by children just looking for kicks. One, however, was a gas can rigged to go off in a homicide attempt. And, several months ago the squad was called out to a storage facility on Philips Highway that was filled with more sophisticated explosives. But, after shutting down I-95 and investigating the storage unit, it was determined that the material was just being stored there by someone licensed to deal with it.

Parmer said there are any number of variables concerning bomb threats. But he tried to describe what usually happens, though he declined to give too much detail so as not give prospective bombers any information that could help them.

“The patrol responds first,” he said. “They’ll get with the building owner. It’s their decision whether they want to evacuate. From that point, whether they evacuate or they don’t, we conduct a search with the people at the building because they have more knowledge of what looks out of place and what looks abnormal. If everything appears to be OK, we don’t say there isn’t a bomb. We just say we couldn’t find anything. If they do find something that looks out of place, then we go and make a determination of whether to call out the bomb squad.”

Some of that decision goes beyond the threat or any physical evidence, he said.

“It also depends on what kind of business it is,” said Parmer. “Why would somebody want to put a bomb there in the first place? That’s always something you have to consider. And then it’s just where you kind of go from there in your investigation. We get them [bomb threats] at the police station all the time, and you can’t close the police station down every time somebody wants to disrupt your activities by calling in a bomb threat. But now, if you got one at say one of the Jewish centers or something like that, I think that obviously would be taken a lot more seriously.”

When the bomb squad is called, two technicians are chosen to approach the device and do an initial assessment, Parmer said. Both wear a bulky, cushioned bomb suit. From there, he said, “I would just say they render the device safe. They attempt to determine what the device is and they render it safe. As for the specifics of how they do that, that’s information we’d rather not put out there.”

There are, however, several options in how to proceed, Parmer said.

“That’s where you weigh your options and determine if it’s best to risk a little physical damage to a structure or to an individual. There are options available: Move the device or try to render it safe right where it is. And, like you said, the location, what type of building you’re in, the structure, the size of the device — there’s a lot of facts and circumstances that go into making that decision. It’s not necessarily something like you see on TV where they sit there and clip the wires and do all that right there on location.”

Parmer said the squad has a trailer with a special container in which a suspected explosive can be placed and towed to a range where it can be safely detonated.

Neither officer can remember any bomb techs being injured on a call.

“We stress safety,” Bowen said. “They get a lot of training. You don’t just come on the team today and be handling bombs tomorrow. There’s a long period of training, and some people don’t make it. They’re just not cut out for that kind of work.”

Bowen said the JSO puts prospective bomb techs onto the squad in a sometimes year long pre-training in which it is determined if the candidate has what it takes, mentally and physically, to do the job.

“It has to be a special individual who really has an interest in that aspect of the job,” said Parmer. “I mean, if you get past the dangers that are inherently associated with that, you really have to have an interest in the technical aspects, because it’s not just a matter of, let’s say, when they make a device when they’re doing their training. You don’t just throw in some black powder or cut out a strip of C-4. There’s precise measurements and a real technical aspect to that. So, like the chief said, it’s not for everybody. And there’s a physically demanding part of it, too. Some people just can’t wear that bomb suit. If you have a claustrophobic condition, putting that suit on with an extra 80-90 pounds of weight on you wouldn’t work. There’s a mask in there where you’re hot and the air’s not circulating well. It can be a challenge.”

Confidence is another key ingredient, he said.

“These guys that we have are very confident in their ability to handle these devices,” Parmer said. “They know their capabilities and they know how to do their job. That comes through training and experience.”

If a candidate gets through the tryout, they must complete a five week course at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. After that, the training never ends. That’s the mental part.

Three times a month the squad trains on its own or with other units practicing different tactical situations, according to Parmer.

“We might have the squad train with the SWAT team or the hostage negotiating team,” he said. “We don’t want to focus on just one type of scenario. We want to make sure if there’s anything different out there that we’re prepared for it.”

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