Bomb Squads and Hazmat Teams: Teamwork, Cooperation, and Relationships

The squad leader is back at work from a well deserved family vacation. The previous shift has been relieved and the squad’s activities during the past week have been reviewed. Just as the morning equipment check is finished a call comes in warning about a “suspicious package” reported to have been left on the elevated platform of a subway station nearby.

While the bomb squad is on its way to the station another call comes in from the dispatcher, warning that the package is leaking and that a noxious odor also has been detected. The dispatcher reports that Fire/Rescue personnel, including a hazardous materials response team, also is en route to the scene.

A Warm Handshake, and Reasonable Hopes

All of the units responding arrive at the station in the next several minutes – and, surprisingly perhaps, the bomb squad commander and the hazardous-materials operations chief meet one another for the first time. The bomb squad commander tells the hazmat chief that his bomb technicians cannot enter the site because of the leaking package, and the hazmat chief says that his people also cannot go onto the platform because of the possibility that the “package” may be a bomb. Meanwhile, all subway and rail lines in or headed to the area are shut down.

Five years after the worst terrorist attacks against American citizens in history, on U.S. soil, and with almost daily reminders of terrorist activities elsewhere in the world, it might reasonably be hoped that scenarios such as that described above are extremely rare. And, in fact, community bomb squads and hazmat teams across the nation have taken several steps forward to ensure that such frustrating scenarios do not occur. Numerous bomb technicians throughout the United States already have gone through WMD (weapons of mass destruction) training and are now required to qualify as hazardous material technicians prior to attending the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Basic Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Alabama.

In addition, new and improved protective clothing – including a “level B” ensemble with an explosive search suit as an over-garment – has been developed to allow bomb technicians to work more safely as well as more effectively in a hazardous environment.

The search suit does not afford the bomb technician the same full protection provided by a complete bomb suit, but it does afford a certain degree of blast protection, and bomb suit manufacturers are currently working on improving and expanding the level of blast protection provided.           

It Starts With a Phone Call

But the real key to developing a closer and more productive joint effort between bomb squads and hazmat teams is not updating the training provided or even the purchase of new equipment – it is, more than anything else, creating the necessary working relationships and partnerships between the bomb squads and hazmat teams prior to their participation in real-life operational incidents such as that described above.

The development of such relationships can sometimes be difficult, of course, particularly if the bomb squad is a law-enforcement unit and the hazmat team works on the fire side of the house. Regardless of the institutional relationships, and despite what is implied by the organization charts, the commanders of both teams must meet together, early and often, to discuss and resolve any operational issues ahead of time. Following that, the bomb squads and hazmat teams must really work and train together as one team.

There are many situations – not only bomb calls but also drug lab incidents and other special non-emergency events – in which both teams will have to work together from start to finish, and the number of such situations is increasing rapidly. Taxpayers have the right to expect a synergistic improvement from the cooperative efforts that will be necessary to defend the community.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the two types of teams are partnered within the fire department, and that organizational relationship has made it easier for the members of both teams to train together and work together. Bomb technicians not only train frequently with the hazmat team but also go through an annual hazmat technician recertification. Similarly, members of the hazmat team respond to bomb calls as part of their own job, not only to provide support to the bomb technicians and to the overall operation, but also – if by chance an unknown substance is detected – to assume responsibility for operations within their own areas of expertise. The fact that bomb and hazmat incidents are managed in much the same way – with control zones established, special protective clothing and specialized equipment used, and similar command structures in place – helps significantly in dealing with such incidents.

It obviously makes sense that the two types of teams work and train together to ensure a safe and positive outcome of various incidents threatening their home communities. And it is encouraging that there already are many jurisdictions across the country where the two types of teams have joined forces and are working together with increasing effectiveness. In communities where this is not the case, bomb squad leaders and hazmat team commanders would be well advised to take the time now to make the initial call that will start developing the improved working relationships needed. By doing so, these unit leaders will ensure that the next operational incident will be better coordinated, the safety of all response personnel under their jurisdiction will be enhanced, and the communities they serve will be both safer and more secure than they now are.

Brian Geraci

Brian Geraci is a Battalion Chief with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Montgomery County, Maryland. He is presently assigned to Montgomery County’s Homeland Security Department. Chief Geraci has over 30 years of service in the county and was a charter member of the county’s Hazardous Incident Response Team and served as one of the team leaders.



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