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Monday, May 14, 2012

Cop school: the bomb unit

MPO Tom Eggers with the EOD unit's robots.
When a bomb threat was called in to Annandale High School and a suspicious package was left there March 30, the Fairfax County Police Department’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit brought its robots to investigate. X-rays conducted by the robots found the contents “completely innocuous,” says Master Police Officer Tom Eggers, the bomb squad commander. A former student was eventually arrested.

Eggers and MPO Bryan Cooke, the only two full-time staff on the Annandale-based EOD unit, gave a presentation to the Fairfax County Citizens’ Police Academy earlier this month.

In addition to responding to bomb threats, the unit accompanies the SWAT team and hostage negotiators during barricade and hostage incidents, responds to calls about illegal fireworks, disposes of hazardous chemicals, supervises K9 sweeps and searches, and handles “explosive breaching” of doors when the SWAT team has to get inside a building quickly.

The K9s who work with the bomb squad are Moose, Spicey, Marco, and Gracie—all of them black or yellow labs. The K9s can detect 19,000 different explosive odors. Cooke, who works closely with Spicey, says the dog was able to find a handgun hidden in 20 acres of grass in just 20 seconds.

Because the training is so extensive, a dog with those skills are worth about $50,000. The dogs are trained by inmates in a program called Puppies Behind Bars.

The EOD unit prefers labs because “they’re passive and friendly and won’t bite,” Cooke says. That’s important because they often work in crowds. They are trained to respond to food and are given food whenever they accomplish a task. Spicey, who lives with Cooke’s family when they’re not working, has never had food in a bowl since Cooke began working with him about seven years ago.
MPO Bryan Cooke

One of the most dangerous jobs the unit dealt with occurred in 2006, when there was a fire in a townhouse on Banning Place in Burke. The fire marshal asked the EOD unit to investigate what the firefighters thought was a meth lab in the basement.

The EOD unit found a lab in the basement, all right, but it turns out the occupants were making explosives, not meth. There were three propane cylinders, a selection of firearms stacked up against a wall, lots of dangerous chemicals—including napalm, acetone, and peroxide—in bowls and bell jars, and a pressure washer used to make a homemade flamethrower. All in all, there were 11 pounds of explosives, Cooke says.

The entire row of townhouses was evacuated while the EOD unit took over a nearby community center to analyze the chemicals and figure out how to dispose of them. With all those chemicals around, you’d think they were the cause of the fire, but  it was caused by a candle the occupants failed to extinguish before leaving for the Labor Day weekend. They weren’t terrorists, Cooke says; they were in the National Guard and liked to make their own explosives.

“The No. 1 dangerous job for us is fireworks disposal,” Cooke says. The biggest fireworks case the unit ever dealt with took place at a single-family house on Portage Place in Chantilly in July 2007. The homeowner was a chemical engineer who made his own fireworks and accidentally started a fire when a spark from a grinding machine ignited as he was preparing for a big show. He tried to douse what turned out to be a massive fire with a garden hose.

When that failed, he got out and tried to hide his fireworks in his 92-year-old neighbor’s shed, leaving his 8-year-old son in the house. The boy managed to save himself by jumping out of a second-story window.

The EOD team found a huge amount of fireworks and hazardous chemicals, including loose flash powder all of the place. Flash powder is so dangerous, it can detonate from its own weight, Cooke says.

The fireworks man was convicted but got no jail time. He did end up having to pay $97,000 in restitution for damage to the house, and his insurance company refused to reimburse him.

In another incident, the EOD unit was called when a cannonball from the Civil War was found by a crew working on a home remodeling project in Fairfax. It had a fuse and was still live. The team buried it and detonated it.

Another time, the team was called in when the police discovered what they thought was a pipe bomb in the home of a hoarder who’d had a heart attack and had been buried under his own mess. The EOD team X-rayed it and discovered it was not a bomb; it was full of money—$6,000—so they were glad they hadn’t blown it up.  

In 2009, the EOD unit responded to a call about an emotionally disturbed man from Philadelphia who had pulled off the road in Lorton, lied down, and told a passerby he had a bomb inside his body.

Because a hospital refused to admit a man that might blow up, the bomb squad stood him up next to a concrete pillar by the road and X-rayed him. No bomb was found. He was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he banged his head against a wall so hard he broke his neck and is now paralyzed.

The suits EOD team members wear weigh 85 pounds, and with all the equipment, they’re carrying around an extra 120 pounds, says Eggers. “It’s absolute misery in July and August.” He calls the helmet they wear the “dome of ignorance” because it’s so hard to see things while wearing it. There’s no peripheral vision; it’s like looking through a toilet paper roll, he says.

Eggers says the robots have been on three or four dozen SWAT team missions since 2002. They use the robots to do things like breach doors, take pictures into second-story windows, and operate drills and cutting tools. The larger one (on the left in the photo above) weighs 81 pounds and cost $225,000 with all the accessories.

The robots are much slower than human beings, Eggers says. What can take a human 30 seconds could take a robot 10 minutes because you have to direct their every movement. “We’ll put a robot in harm’s way before we put a person in harm’s way,” Cooke adds.

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