Da Bomb Squad The Hazardous Devices Team shows off their tools
The Remote-Tech Andros Mark 6A rolls on its gap-toothed treads in the parking lot of the police substation on Maple Street, crunching gravel beneath it as it turns on a pivot. Then the arm slowly unfurls, extending just a fraction of its 10-foot reach and the sturdy claw opens and closes.
A thin, orange fiber-optic umbilical cable snakes from the back of the machine to a remote control unit the size of an old desktop computer, where Officer Trent Walker of the Greensboro Police Department throws switches and levers while Officer John Tucker stands by.
The machine is state-of-the-art, with articulated treads that can travel through sand and mud and allow it to cross ditches as big as two feet across.
‘“You can even climb stairs with it,’” Walker says.
Walker, a senior officer with the K-9 unit, is also a member of the department’s elite Hazardous Devices Team, known in more common vernacular as the Bomb Squad.
‘“We’ve got the coolest stuff in the department by far,’” he says, ‘“unless you’re into guns and stuff. As far as gadgetry, we’ve got it all.’”
The robot represents the pinnacle of the team’s technology, with four cameras, assorted lights, a speaker and microphone, the retractable claw arm and a long-barreled gun called a ‘disruptor’ that can shoot many different types of projectiles.
‘“We can’t tell you exactly what we put in it,’” Walker says. ‘“It’s not bullets.’”
The Andros has mounts for drills, saws, wirecutters and even a Benelli shotgun, making it dangerous enough to clean house in one of those robot wars TV shows. But the GPD uses it for more practical matters, like assisting the Special Response Team (the GPD’s version of SWAT) and aiding in negotiations.
‘“Just the other day we had a guy with a .45 caliber and a vehicle and he was threatening suicide,’” Walker recalls. ‘“We sent [the robot] over and used the surveillance camera and I’m looking at him while he’s got this .45 up under his chin.’”
But the Andros belongs primarily to the Bomb Squad.
‘“We try to do everything remotely,’” Walker says. ‘“We’ll use it to go down on suspicious packages. We get tons of suspicious package calls.’”
But they do much more than that.
One might question the necessity of a bomb squad in a city like Greensboro, where explosions are not exactly commonplace ‘— a search of the News & Record’s archives reveals very little bomb activity in the area save for a spate of telephoned bomb threats last spring which were eventually traced to a local teenager who did not, in fact, have any bombs or the material to make them.
But these days, when the threat of terrorism is always present and anyone can download detailed instructions to make a pipe bomb on the internet, the Greensboro Bomb Squad is kind of like a handgun: it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. And because the team has access to the best equipment available, courtesy of a Homeland Security windfall after 9/11, their jurisdiction covers not just Greensboro but all of Guilford County, Rockingham, Randolph, Davidson and Alamance Counties. They’ve even assisted with situations in Forsyth.
Walker says they go on four or five calls a month.
‘“We’ve had pipe bombs in Greensboro and some other things,’” Walker says. ‘“We come across homemade explosives all the time.’”
‘“We get kids blowing up mailboxes for fun,’” Tucker adds.
They get calls from the airport and the bus station, from schools and shopping malls. But also they deal with grenades and mortars brought home by servicemen and women from combat duty. And they do a brisk trade in Civil and Revolutionary War relics, particularly cannonballs of the explosive variety.
‘“We had a lady in High Point who found a Civil War cannonball embedded in the side of a creek bed,’” Walker remembers.
They get some calls that can be filed under ‘miscellaneous’: ‘“Remember when old-timers used to blow up tree stumps with dynamite?’ Walker says. ‘“Then the guy dies and they find blasting caps in the attic.’”
And the officers say that people involved in the drug trade often use explosives to booby-trap their stash of supplies.
Today most of the team is working in conjunction with the Secret Service to prepare for a visit from President Bush in Kernersville. Walker cannot divulge any details of the operations but he will share some information about himself.
He came to the Hazardous Devices Team six years ago after working as a patrolman. He became a bomb technician after a six-week course at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. And he still undergoes at least 16 hours of training every month.
‘“Usually more,’” he says. ‘“I’ve got probably 1,800 hours of training logged.’”
The team is a part-time unit comprised of 11 officers, all of whom have other duties on the force. Tucker drives a Chevy Tahoe on the highways with the traffic safety patrol. Walker, a K-9 handler, uses his expertise with dogs to oversee the two four-legged members of the squad, bomb-sniffing black labs named Sonny and Mick.
The humans on the team, Walker says, have several traits in common.
‘“It takes someone who likes gadgetry,’” he says, ‘“[someone who] has some kind of mechanical ability because you’re dealing with a lot of technical equipment [and is] able to operate under highly stressful situations: you’re going down on a package; you have no idea what’s in it. It may be 90 degrees out and you’re in this big suit’….’”
He lays one of the suits down in the parking lot and it drops with a thud: thick green trousers with reinforcements in the knee, thigh, shin, groin and toe that fasten in the backs of the legs with Velcro and zippers; a breastplate that can stop bullets and shrapnel; a thick and solid spine protector; a green and black coat with protective plates sewn into the lining and a helmet with a facemask that can stop bullets. The whole thing weighs about 80 pounds and they use special steel hangars to store them in the response van.
‘“You can imagine walking a hundred yards holding a package in one of these things,’” Walker says. ‘“Like I said, we like to be remote if we can.’”
When they get a call a response team assembles and gets to the site. They send in the robot or one of the guys in the suit. They take possession of the package. Now what?
The next step is to secure the device on the transport truck, a monster ten-wheeler with a bed made of reinforced steel that requires a commercial license to operate. A large cylinder sits in the center of the bed, made with two thick layers of solid metal and with a Kevlar bucket inside surrounded by sand. They use a remote control to operate a small crane that lifts the cover from the drum and puts packages inside before bringing it to a confidential location, away from where it can hurt people.
‘“If it goes off, the force is vented straight up in the air,’” Walker says.
He and Tucker both are vague about the rest of the process.
‘“We do some things to ’em, break ’em apart,’” Tucker says.
‘“We can’t really talk about it,’” says Walker.
Now behind the remote console for the robot, Walker propels the machine towards a photographer in the parking lot. The display screen is as big as a computer monitor, with picture-in-picture capabilities using images from all four cameras, and Walker zooms in on the photographer on the ground. He can see every hair on the shooter’s moustache.
The machine is so new it hasn’t been named yet. The old one, Roy, named for retired Greensboro cop Roy Riggs, sits in the rear of the response van.
In the Homeland Security era, municipal forces like the GPD are expected to contribute in the case of a large disaster, crime or terrorist attack, working in tandem with agencies like the FBI, the Secret Service and the ATF, even the National Guard.
‘“They envision all of the enforcement agencies working together,’” Walker explains.
And with these expectations comes funding for things like the Robo-Tech Andros Mark 6A. Walker says the thing cost about $135,000 ‘— not bad when weighed with the lives it helps protect.
‘“It’d be fun to have one around the house,’” he says.
That’s when the talk turns to television robot wars and the virtues of the Andros’ detachable saws and drills, the dexterity and strength of the arm and claw, the formidable treads and its many other charms, and what it might do to Diesector or BioHazard if they were to meet in the ‘“BattleBots’” arena.
‘“I believe the weapon would end it,’” Tucker says. ‘“It would stop the whole thing right there.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.