Whenever I attend a public function to represent the Lodi Police Bomb Squad, the most frequently asked question is, "Why do you do it?"
After almost 19 years as a bomb technician (or "Hazardous Devices Technician," as the FBI likes to call us), I still don't have a definitive answer to that question. It's something you have to want to do; it's not something you should be told to do.
I was asked to write this article because of renewed public interest in bomb disposal due to the Academy Award-winning movie "The Hurt Locker." I will admit that the movie has many technical equipment accuracies, but like any Hollywood movie, the actions performed by the hero, Tech Sgt. James, make explosive ordnance disposal professionals cringe.
One of the initial personnel assessments required by the FBI to be accepted as a trainee in the Hazardous Devices School is that the applicant must be a "risk taker." There are physical, mental and background requirements that must be met even before one's application to attend the basic bomb school will be accepted.
Once accepted, the applicant goes on a waiting list for 12 to 18 months. Prerequisite training is also required on hazardous materials for first responders.
Once accepted to attend the basic bomb tech course in Alabama, a trainee will endure six weeks of extreme physical and mental training. When I attended my basic course, it was July. The temperature was 95 degrees, 95 percent humidity and a heat-index of 125 degrees. It was common practice for us at the end of our training day to take off our boots and pour the sweat out.
During this course, we are trained in demolition procedures, electrical circuits, chemical and biological threats, improvised explosive devices, military ordnance recognition, render safe techniques, personal protective and respiratory equipment, tools, booby traps and robotics. We are required to pass every topic or immediately return to our department. Additionally, bomb techs are required to return every three years for reassessment and recertification.
The training facility located on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. recently went through a $23 million upgrade. This state of the art school now incorporates more than 455 acres, which house 14 separate "villages" and demolition ranges. These villages provide the most realistic training possible for the bomb techs. The Redstone facility is probably second only to the Felix Centre, which trains the British Army.
After you finish the basic course, the instructors have you so paranoid, that everything you see or hear is a hidden bomb or booby trap. When you go on your first "live" bomb call, your head is swimming with all the tips, cheats, procedures and hazards the instructors drilled in to your head.
Shortly after graduating HDS, I was called away from a Christmas party to handle live explosives found by the county narcotics task force. My fellow bomb techs assisted me in putting on the 75 pound bomb suit. As I began the long solo walk toward the target, I could feel my heart rate and breathing accelerate. This is the moment you tell yourself, "Take a deep breath, and bring it down."
I opened the lid of an ice chest to see a five-pound blasting charge lying on top of dozens of loose electrical blasting caps. As I bent down to remove the explosive charge, I could hear and feel the front protective panel of my bomb suit give way leaving my torso unprotected to the explosives only two feet away. A hasty retreat and a quick suit repair allowed me to return and safely separate the explosives from the detonators.
As a bomb tech, you try not to think of the "what ifs." The most vivid of these invasive thoughts presented itself when our detective unit discovered a Russian jet ejector seat rocket in a storage locker. I remember lying face down on the ground, leaning down in the pit we had dug, beside a U.S. Air Force EOD tech. We were placing six C-4 high explosive blocks on the rocket, in order to counter-charge it. For a brief second, I thought "what if" a stray electrical static charge causes a premature detonation, but you just shake it and complete your task at hand.
We know that our EOD career is not as glamorous as the one portrayed in "The Hurt Locker," but each one of us who wears the EOD "crab," or qualification badge, is very proud of earning the right to wear that pin on our uniform.
Finally, there is the old saying in our business … "if you see us running, try to keep up."
This article is dedicated to men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice and are memorialized at the military EOD memorial on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and the civilian memorial at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
Any comments, questions or advice for Behind the Badge can be e-mailed to Jeanie Biskup at firstname.lastname@example.org; mailed to Lodi Police Department, 215 W. Elm St., Lodi, CA 95240; or asked by phone at 333-6864.