Booster

Fire division's bomb squad covers 36 counties

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Robots and Rover play almost equal roles in protecting the public from terrorist bombs in a wide swath of Ohio.

The technicians with the Columbus Division of Fire Bomb Squad depend on devices that are as high-tech as they come and equipment as basic as the sensitive nose of a dog.

Patrick Morris, 48, has been a Columbus firefighter for 18 years, the past eight with the bomb squad. He was the guest speaker July 16 at a monthly gathering of Block Watch coordinators in the Northland area.

He touched on the history of the squad, the territory it covers, day-to-day duties, how dangerous the work can be and just why improvised explosive devices, the infamous IEDs of international reports out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hotspots, are so often the tool of choice for terrorists.

"Using explosives creates a lot more fear than just going into a crowd and shooting people," Morris said. "Boston is a perfect example."

The local bomb squad operates as a regional unit with the help of funding from the Department of Homeland Security, according to Morris. It covers 36 counties in an area basically east and south of Columbus to the Ohio River.

"It keeps us really busy," he said.

The Columbus Division of Fire Bomb Squad works under the Special Operations Unit, which also includes the hazardous materials and dive teams.

The squad has 16 bomb technicians; three of them, like Morris, are dedicated to that assignment full-time. The rest work the normal 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule of regular firefighters.

At least two bomb technicians are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, according to Morris.

The squad also has two explosion-detection dogs and one dog used to detect accelerants in arson cases. A full-time dog trainer works with the animals, Morris said.

"They work to eat," he said. "It's more like a game of hide-and-seek for them, too."

While an amazing array of chemicals, compounds and substances can be combined to make explosives, Morris said, they only give off six distinctive scents as far as the dogs are concerned.

The dogs are used to sweep areas where crowds are expected, such as summer festivals, visits by presidential candidates and, of course, Ohio State football games, he said.

When it comes to dealing with a potential terrorist bomb, unexploded World War II ordnance found in someone's sock drawer or an IED some teens concocted based on YouTube videos, Franklin County residents are in good hands, Morris said.

In addition to three units the fire division's bomb squad can put into service, the Franklin County Sheriff's Office has its own bomb unit.

"We're pretty fortunate here," Morris said. "We essentially could handle four different incidents."

The squad also has three robots, including a $300,000 one that was built in Spain, Morris said. Only three of these "very expensive" units are in the United States, he said.

The robots, not the dogs, are used to work with suspicious packages.

Bomb suits, such as the ones made famous in a 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, provide technicians with some protection, but not much if it's a powerful device, he said.

"The thing that kills bomb techs, especially when they're in the suits, is the blast pressure," Morris said. "The blast pressure is what messes up your body."

One important lesson bomb technicians know and try to impart to their colleagues and the general public is a key way to stay safe if there is an explosion, Morris said: "If you can see the device, it can see you."

The best bet is to get as far away as possible and behind a building or some other protection, he said.

And yet, Morris acknowledged, even colleagues in the fire service will "rubberneck" when there's a bomb potentially about to go off.

"It happens so fast, you really don't see anything anyway," he said.

About 90 percent of the bomb squads in the United States are part of law-enforcement agencies, according to Morris.

Only 10 percent are with a fire department, as is the case in Columbus. In 1961 or 1962, when the mayor wanted to establish a bomb squad, the police chief wasn't interested but the fire chief was, Morris said.

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