4/11/2013 - Residents stood outside their homes on either side of Maryland Avenue in Manchester at about 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday. They watched the parade of local and state police vehicles descending on their quiet neighborhood. One man walked out his front door in sweatpants and a T-shirt holding a plate stacked with pancakes.
But the situation was serious. Police barricaded all roadways leading to 245 Maryland Ave. after a homeowner discovered what looked suspiciously like a pipe bomb as he took out his trash that morning. Manchester police took a look at the item, then called in the State Police Explosives Disposal Unit.
After several minutes of waiting and watching from afar, Manchester Police Lt. Maureen Tessier began walking quickly down the street toward a barricade. She told officers and the gathered media members that there was nothing to worry about and that she’d explain later. A few seconds later, a call went out twice: “Fire in the hole!” That was followed by a muffled explosion.
State bomb technicians had utilized a device to blow apart the suspicious item, neutralizing it and returning life to normal. The pssh, pssh, pssh from a nail gun echoed soon thereafter from a nearby home where carpenters continued their work.
Bomb technicians had determined the item was dangerous, though they had not determined the item’s purpose.
The Explosives Disposal Unit may not respond frequently to calls for actual bombs, but the six-person State Police unit keeps busy identifying and disposing of suspicious and dangerous items. The unit responded to 189 calls in 2011, 63 of which were for the recovery of explosives or devices.
After neutralizing the item on Maryland Avenue, the bomb squad isn’t done working on that call.
“We turn around to the forensics side, once it’s no longer a hazard,” said State Trooper Jeffrey Dade, a team leader for the bomb squad. “Then it becomes police work 101.”
That is, gathering evidence.
“Ultimately, if we do determine that a crime has been committed, we’ve got to get evidence,” Dade said. “Public safety is the first concern, but not that far away is trying to put away the bad guys.”
About 45 minutes after the suspicious item on Maryland Avenue was neutralized, the entire bomb squad was in Concord, training at a warehouse. Technicians worked with two of the unit’s three robots. Bomb dog handlers ran through drills with canines. Another technician hopped into a bomb suit, which provides some protection if an item does explode, to practice moving around in it.
“These moments are nice,” Dade said.
And by “these moments,” he was referring to moments when the unit is all together. That’s rare. Unit members are more often sent in many different directions each day, depending on training requirements and calls.
Day-in and day-out
New Hampshire bomb technicians may not be hanging beneath a moving bus cutting wires to dismantle a bomb, a la Keanu Reeves in Speed — “That just doesn’t happen here,” Dade said — but it’s serious business all the same.
The unit gets called in for suspicious items or packages, but more frequently, it deals with the disposal of explosives, particularly old grenades or destabilized dynamite, which can cause high-risk situations.
Veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War often took home “trophies” or keepsakes from their time in battle. Airport security was considerably different in those days and soldiers would take home items, such as grenades or small projectiles. Soldiers would presumably remove any explosive component from these items, thus making them safe, Dade said.
These soldiers are passing away and family members are left to go through their belongings. The average citizen can’t tell these items are safe just by looking at them. Family members come across these old grenades and explosives and call police. Ultimately, the call goes to the bomb squad.
“That’s day in and day out,” Dade said.
Bomb technicians can employ tools, including robots, to X-ray items to make sure they are safe. About 90 percent of the time, the old grenades are inert and safe, Dade said.
“We can take a closer look to make sure no one is put at risk,” Dade said, standing in front of a table of some of the potentially dangerous items the unit comes across.
The table included grenades and several different small missile-like projectiles, including bazooka rounds. Dade said the unit gets called frequently to dispose of Japanese mortars from World War II.
Sometimes those are quick calls, but sometimes they aren’t. Often, initial tests prove inconclusive. Technicians always err on the side of caution, Dade said.
Bomb squads rising
The State Police Explosive Disposal Unit was created in the 1970s and was initially staffed with two troopers. The squad was deemed necessary following a bombing at the Manchester Fire Department, as well as an attempted bombing at the Manchester police station in 1971 by a domestic terrorist organization. The unit received FBI accreditation in 1997.
The Nashua Police Department started its own Explosives Disposal Unit in the 1970s as well. In the ’70s, there was plenty of “tumultuous behavior,” said Nashua Police Lt. E Z. Paulson, who supervises the Nashua explosives disposal unit. At the time, Nashua officials saw a need to protect themselves.
Since 1973, the Nashua unit has had 10 technicians, including the four current technicians. The Nashua unit provides help geographically and it stays plenty busy, Paulson said.
“At some point it seemed logical,” Paulson said. “We’re one of the larger communities, and someone had gone through the [technician training]. So we jumped into the mix.”
The Nashua unit responds to calls throughout the greater Nashua area. Paulson said the unit sees the same type of calls the state police do, including the recovery of items, such as grenades, as well as the disposal of explosives. The unit is frequently deployed to be on standby during special events, such as a presidential visit. Nashua police have their own robot as well.
In Nashua, it’s a part-time operation. The four technicians all wear other hats in the police force too, said Paulson, who has been a member of the unit for more than 10 years. But, he said, there’s nothing routine about being on the bomb squad.
“Everything is suspicious,” Paulson said. “Everything is a real device until we determine it’s not. Given its nature, we can’t make assumptions. We can come up with alternative theories as to why something is placed the way it is, but until we do the diagnostic work … it’s certainly a real thing.”
Trooper Matthew Partington of the state police Explosives Disposal Unit remembered being called in to dispose of old explosives. The situation was volatile. Partington found himself forced to deal with a 30-year-old, 50-pound case of dynamite. The dynamite had sweated out its nitroglycerine over time and it had essentially glued the block of dynamite to the plywood it was resting on.
Once dynamite destabilizes, it becomes sensitive and unpredictable. Oxygen can cause it to explode — even just daylight could set it off.
Because it was located in a relatively urban area, Partington said, the only way to work with it was to get hands-on.
“It could have blown up easily if it was handled improperly,” Partington said.
Historically an agrarian state, farmers in New Hampshire used to be able to obtain dynamite easily and legally for disposal of tree stumps and beaver dams. Farmers would always try to hold onto three or four sticks because they never knew when they’d need to blow up another stump. As the state has moved away from its agrarian past and property has changed hands, dynamite can sit untouched for decades on a shelf in a little-used barn. Eventually, someone comes upon the dynamite and calls the bomb squad.
“There’s no crime there, but somebody needs to deal with that,” Dade said. “That’s a big part of our job.”
Technicians either destroy the dynamite or counter-charge it to neutralize it. In the middle of a rural area, technicians might be able to simply detonate the dynamite in a safe location. But in the middle of a more urban environment such as as Partington dealt with, they might be able to rely on their total containment vessel, in which technicians can safely detonate explosives with no risk to people or property. The total containment vessel looks like an oversized bowling ball sitting on a trailer. Dade said it’s sort of like a big popcorn popper.
“If there’s an [improvised explosive device] on Elm Street in Manchester, if you can get it into this, the blast will actually be contained,” Dade said.
Without it, even if the area is evacuated, the blast will likely damage nearby structures, Dade said.
Along with the total containment vessel, the also has a mobile thermal destruction unit, which is used to dispose of seized ammunition, fireworks and certain chemicals.
“[An explosive device] needs to blow up,” Dade said, adding the unit can make that happen in a controlled setting.
Training for anything
Dade said for a time his shift partner was a bomb technician, and he remembered him talking about his training, the things he was dealing with, and the equipment he used. It struck an interest with Dade, who joined the Explosives Disposal Unit in 1999 as a canine handler. He became certified as a bomb technician in 2001.
“It’s naturally oriented toward those who are more tech-oriented,” Dade said.
And it provides a never-ending learning curve.
“You can’t learn enough,” Dade said.
That’s regardless of where bomb technicians work, because the training standards and requirements are the same — it all comes from the FBI. In that way, if a New Hampshire bomb technician were sent to New York City, he or she would be just as capable of dealing with whatever issues are happening there.
“You gotta be ready when the bell rings,” Dade said.
Technicians rotate their training on different items. If a call comes in at a particular time when Partington has been training on the most appropriate robot for the job, he’s most likely going to be the best choice to operate the robot in that moment. The others can do it, but he’s likely to be the sharpest.
In other professions, Dade said, you can sort of master the learning curve at some point. It’s not like that with being a bomb technician.
“Even old problems, there are always new ways of dealing with them,” he said.
The science evolves rapidly in this field. That’s why the unit must spend a considerable amount of time each month training. Dade said technicians have to have a thirst for training. The unit’s members must each train for 16 hours each month, as per national standards, along with 40 hours each year of outside training.
“Every call is different,” Flynn added. “There is no standard EOD call. It definitely always requires a lot of thought and problem solving and ingenuity. ... That’s part of the challenge.”
Bomb technicians in New Hampshire meet technicians from all over the country at trainings. Technicians are always exchanging details on the types of hazards they run into. While technicians in big cities like New York or Boston might be more used to dealing with suspicious packages than technicians in New Hampshire, Granite State technicians would presumably have more experience dealing with destabilized dynamite.
Partington said the New Hampshire unit has a strong working relationship with Massachusetts technicians. They’ve often collaborated on training, he said.
“To me, the science of what we do is just fascinating,” Partington said. “It’s chemistry and physics all in one.”
Being a member of the bomb squad means being trained in working with hazardous materials, such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents. They’re also trained to work with homemade explosives, commercial explosives, weapons of mass destruction and booby traps.
For Partington, the combination of the physical and mental drew him to the bomb squad.
“It’s not like any other aspects of law enforcement,” Partington said.
In that way, technicians must devote themselves to learning as much as they possibly can, Partington said.
Bomb technicians are sometimes seen as working in a black art since so few people do it. But for technicians, working this way is normal. Dade said if someone asked him to set up plumbing in a house, he’d be terrified. But working with volatile items is normal for Dade and his team. He acknowledged it might terrify most people, including most police officers.
After 9/11, there was a rush to create bomb squads or to expand existing ones. Realistically, though, units and technicians weren’t seeing frequency in calls. If units are only receiving 25 calls per year, that’s dangerous, Dade said. This is the type of work that requires constant practice in real settings. Just training won’t cut it. Technicians need to feel the pressure of actual unpredictability while in a bomb suit or while working one of the robots.
“If you have a heart condition, do you want the doctor in New Hampshire who does the procedure five times per year to do it, or do you want the guy in Boston who does it five times before lunch?” Paulson said. “We want calls for service. It keeps us tight and fresh. These are perishable skills — if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Bomb technicians play their strategies close the vest. They don’t want to give away their approach to people looking to use that against them.
Dade reflected on the tragic call to the police shooting in Greenland one year ago. Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney was killed by Cullen Mutrie, who had barricaded himself in a house. Mutrie ultimately killed himself and his girlfriend.
“That was a tough night,” Dade said.
The unit used a robot to provide eyes inside the house. The robot was able to tell law enforcement there were no longer any threats inside the building “so they could go in with the confidence that nobody else was going to get hurt,” Dade said.
In that way, robots can be used to provide tactical advantages in advance of sending in SWAT teams.
Technicians can do a variety of things with robots. Robots have arms with a gripper, along with a slew of tools that can be attached to help technicians deal with devices and suspicious objects — all from a safe location. Different sized robots work better in different situations.
“No one [robot] can do everything,” Dade said.
“Some have better skills with a certain task,” Partington added.
Two weeks ago, technicians used robots to pick up and open a briefcase during training simulations. The individual working the robot does so from a computer. The robot has cameras that allow technicians to get a close look at items. That said, those cameras present challenges since the display is just two-dimensional. Distances can be difficult to judge. Technicians can actually get vertigo while staring at the computer screen operating the robots, Dade said.
During robot training, State Trooper Sharon Kopp operated a robot to pick up and set down a briefcase. While she looked at a computer screen, Partington had a different angle on the briefcase. He provided input to help Kopp pick up the briefcase with the robot’s gripper, turn it, and then set it down on the pavement, without it falling over.
If a device blows up and destroys a robot, well, it’s a lot easier to replace a robot than it is to replace a person, Dade said.
But robots are slow and that can be frustrating — frustrating for technicians, but also frustrating for outside officers looking to deal with a situation, Dade said.
“Sometimes it takes longer,” Dade said. “Nothing goes fast with a robot.”
During the training, Dade opened the back of an SUV chock full of equipment and picked up a green briefcase containing what he said was basically a laptop for operating robots. How do technicians operate robots? With a video game system controller.
The military has found that new soldiers need little or no training with the controllers. It took a little longer for Dade and some other members of the team to get up to speed with controllers.
“To them, it’s intuitive,” Dade said. “You hand it over and they’re good to go.”
The unit has a little different type of filter for selecting candidates. Technicians need to be calm under pressure. They need to be able to multitask and prioritize. They need to be able to work deliberately and methodically even when danger is high.
“Not a sleeper but not an adrenaline junkie,” Dade said.
The team works as just that — a team. Decisions are made by the team. The team leader has the final say, but he gets input from everybody else.
“If someone’s getting a little excitable, we bring them back down to Earth,” Dade said.
Different team members bring different backgrounds to the table, making some more adept in certain situations than others.
“We all contribute,” Partington said. “It’s a level playing field out there.”
Geography plays a role in selecting team members as well. Aside from the Nashua area — since Nashua Police has its own bomb squad that covers that city and about a dozen other communities — the state unit needs to respond to all corners of the state. It helps to have team members from all over to ensure that at least one team member can be on the scene quickly.
Everybody wants to be the point person, the one in the bomb suit, the one staring the suspicious package in the face. The one calling the shots from point-blank range.
“If you don’t want to be the one down range, then you’re probably in the wrong place,” Partington said.
Team members fight to be down range, Partington said. Being down range requires the technician to be on his or her game, because the entire operation is based on what that person perceives. The down-range technician communicates with the command post, which is situated a safer distance from the device. But no matter who is down range, everyone has a role to play.
“Whether I’m on point or assisting, it doesn’t matter,” Flynn said. “It’s just being part of solving that particular problem.”
Moving around in the 80-pound suit isn’t easy. It’s stiff and it requires slow, methodical movements. Dexterity is limited, as is sight. It’s also hot in there. That’s why technicians practice so frequently in the suit. When calls come in, no one wants to be rusty.
“If you’re new or not comfortable in the suit, you’re clumsy, and clumsiness is not good,” Partington said. “There are times when you can’t tell how far away a table is or you just don’t realize how close something is.”
There is no room for emotion when technicians put the suit on. There is only time to focus on the task at hand. Partington said technicians are thinking about ensuring public safety first, and then themselves. The suit does provide some protection, but a variety of factors impact just how safe someone is in the bomb suit if a device explodes: location, wind direction, distance from device, angle of the blast and immediate surroundings, Partington said. Technicians have to consider best angles for approaching devices.
“You just trust your training and your experience,” Partington said.
Technicians also trust their equipment and the team around them.
Sometimes team members can use robots instead of sending someone down range. Sometimes they’ll use robots in conjunction with a person. All the while, whoever is down range is communicating with the command post. Robots can provide different lines of sight that might aid technicians.
“Is the environment safe for the public?” Partington said. “Is it safe for me to be there?”
Kopp, who is a relatively new member of the team, having been certified in September 2012, said technicians keep a level head when approaching any situation.
“You just go through the steps,” Kopp said.
Coming onto New Hampshire’s landscape recently are clandestine drug labs. Illegal drug labs typically involve dangerous and combustible chemicals. When narcotics officers discover a drug lab, they typically bring in the bomb squad, not only to deal with harmful chemicals and agents, but also because drug labs are often booby trapped.
Eight years ago, Dade said drug labs weren’t a frequent issue for his unit, but times have changed. They are now called several times each week for drug labs. That’s a national trend as well, though there have been a greater number found in New England than elsewhere. Dade gave credit to law enforcement for targeting drug labs in this region, rather than this area having a bigger problem.
Other calls are more precautionary than reactive. Things get very busy during the lead up to the New Hampshire primary and the presidential election. As soon as a candidate receives Secret Service support, the bomb squad will be called in to check out venues in advance, Dade said.
“It is difficult to keep up,” Dade said. “But that’s just the nature of the beast.”
While the unit has discovered some suspicious items, they’ve never turned up an actual explosive of any kind while performing advance searches for political visits or for events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Under the radar
When a bomb technician approaches a case of old dynamite rotting away in a barn somewhere in rural New Hampshire, the situation doesn’t carry the same drama as other police work. That’s despite the fact that explosives disposal is dangerous and important work.
Nevertheless, those disposal operations rarely garner headlines or attention. The unit exists under the radar, and to the members of the team, that’s OK.
“We just appreciate going along quietly, just taking care of our business,” Flynn said.
“It’s either initial success or total failure,” Kopp said. “There’s no second chance with explosives. That’s what drives us to be proficient in everything we do.”