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Federal Way bomb squad fuses danger and technology

Remote-controlled robots, protective suits and explosives are all part of the job for Federal Way’s bomb disposal unit.

Federal Way police’s bomb unit is one of only 11 in the state and 471 in the nation, said David Jernigan, FBI Hazardous Devices program director. Its members undergo frequent training to meet FBI standards. Bomb technicians must be prepared to dedicate themselves to their work in an effort to stay up-to-date on equipment and techniques used to disarm explosive devices.

The job is competitive, but not ideal for everyone.

“It’s not something most people want to do,” Commander Steve Neal said. “Most people want to get as far away from explosives as they can.”

Those looking to get closer to the dangerous objects must complete strict training before they are allowed to do so. Bomb technicians receive training by the FBI and the U.S. Army. Before a person becomes a technician, he or she must complete six weeks of training at the Hazardous Devices School at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

There, on approximately 450 acres, real-life scenarios are simulated, according to an August 2006 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article titled “Hazardous Devices School.” Here, 14 simulated villages — featuring transportation hubs, commercial areas, strip malls, residential neighborhoods and an airline terminal, among several other features — serve as the background for bomb disposal training, according to the article.

Technicians in training learn how to address suicide bombings, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs), homemade bombs and devices with weapons of mass destruction components. They learn the use of a bomb suit and practice perimeter safety inspections and arrival drills, according to the article. Robots, computers and other high-tech equipment are used.

Mental and physical testing, along with a lengthy background check, are also part of the process in becoming a bomb technician, Neal said. It takes about one and a half years from start to finish, Neal said.

Certification lasts for three years. Each technician is required, per the FBI, to participate in training twice a month and an additional one week per year.

It requires practice to remember what each piece of machinery does. Federal Way’s technicians respond to an average of 28 calls per year, Neal said. Technicians use approximately $500,000 worth of equipment to do their jobs, he said. They also need to stay updated on what bomb-building technology has surfaced.

“The IEDs, the mechanisms, the type of explosives people are using change,” Neal said.

On Oct. 3, the unit practiced operating the department’s high-tech bomb-disposing robot. The process is similar to playing a video game, Neal said. A technician controls the robot from a distance. The machine is sent to investigate suspicious packages or situations.

“For us, it’s a fairly new piece of equipment,” Neal said. “It has all the bells and whistles.”

Homeland security pays for the officers’ training and equipment. In return, the unit promises to respond to incidents that require its help, Neal said. The squad assists the FBI at times, as well as other agencies and jurisdictions, he said.

“What they expect is, if someone calls us, we respond,” Neal said. “We take care of their business.”

The next order of business includes partaking in an event to dispose of the city’s confiscated Fourth of July fireworks, Neal said. In participation with other agencies, the bomb disposal units will blow up explosives, which are illegal in several Pierce and King county cities, taken during the Independence Day celebrations.

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FYI:

On Sept. 5, the police department began its Citizen’s Academy, an eight-week program designed to educate the public on how Federal Way police operate. In the next few weeks, The Mirror will explore what it takes to be a cop.

A look into patrol, traffic enforcement, criminal investigations, the Valley Communications 911 center, K-9, and narcotics and vice operations will be explored. Keep reading for more stories on who Federal Way’s police are and why they do what they do.

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