A new breed of bomb truck

     Until recently, most bomb squads operated out of locally fabricated trucks, hand-me-down vehicles ranging from military surplus to ambulances, or the trunk of a standard patrol car. None were practical for the needs of the bomb tech, whose equipment consists of a variety of expensive tools, including X-ray systems, robotics; bulky, expensive bomb suits; a range of hand and power tools; job-specific tools such as disruptors; and explosives. Since the events of 9/11, this has changed for many teams with the realization that their function is of great import, and as bank accounts have been opened to permit units to upgrade their equipment.

     The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office, located along Florida's Treasure Coast, provides primary services to a county of almost 250,000 and shares response responsibilities for two adjacent counties with other sheriff's teams. Until 2007, the unit had operated out of the traditional variety of response vehicles including the technicians' assigned vehicles, a military surplus pick-up truck with a camper shell top, and an ambulance transferred to the unit's use by the county fire department. However, in July 2007, the team took possession of a new, custom-designed truck built by Emergency One of Ocala, Florida.

     The new truck was not an off-the-shelf model. Lt. Larry Hostettler and his team designed the unit from the ground up to serve them and their agency as they felt it should, rather than fitting their operations to the truck.

     In the endeavor, Hostettler's team received tremendous support from Sheriff Ken Mascara, and his chief deputy, Gary Wilson. Mascara and Wilson's contacts within the St. Lucie County Fire District proved highly beneficial, as they brought the fire service's experience in the design of large public safety trucks to the table. More immediately, Maj. Mike Monahan, director of law enforcement and to whom the bomb squad directly reports, provided the team with continuing support as they worked to design and then oversaw construction of the truck.

     Initially, Hostettler looked at several fire equipment manufacturers, based on the fire district's experience. They settled on Emergency One (E-One) after various contacts relayed to them that E-One was most responsive to customer's needs, and is located approximately 150 miles north of Ft. Pierce. Initial discussion centered on the design elements the department wanted to incorporate, including basic details and more specialized details, such as storage and work area design.

Personal touch

     E-One was knowledgeable of the field, understood the various equipment and even had most specifications on hand. E-One staff also made themselves aware of the needs of the team. They asked what specific type of items the sheriff's office wanted installed rather than assuming one size fits all. For example, they knew the team wanted a toolbox, but did they want a Snap-on, Craftsman or another specific supplier?

     "They made the effort to be knowledgeable of what we do," Hostettler says. They also were very cooperative in providing alternative methods to solving specific problems or design elements, permitting the agency to look at a variety of methods to accomplish the task at hand.

     They started with the chassis, an International 7400/DT530 crew cab truck. This was chosen after careful research was done to identify a strong and powerful unit which in turn could do double duty as a response truck and tow platform for the department's NABCO — a Pennsylvania-based explosive containment company — Total Containment Vessel (TCV). Additionally, they recognized the need for a strong unit that would endure, as the agency's call volume is such that they would not be trading in trucks every few years.

     The crew cab was selected based on the nature of the unit. As a part-time bomb squad, the team members are limited in the equipment they have immediately available, with most members working out of assigned patrol cars. Thus, it was logical to select a vehicle capable of transporting a team, with its equipment maintained on-board, rather than each member having assigned equipment in his or her take-home vehicle. This way the unit limits the number of emergency vehicles responding to a call, and keeps the personnel together as they respond so they can discuss the information available and begin to formulate a strategy before arrival. This is especially valuable on out-of-county responses, where they may travel 50 or more miles to a call, with minimal to no radio communications.

     St. Lucie County's bomb team prefers to conduct most activity outside their truck, providing privacy on the interior for the robot operator, X-ray processing and possibly a technician conducting computer research. Thus they chose to have several exterior cabinets, accessible via roll-up doors, rather than all-interior storage.

     They also worked with E-One to design exterior work tables that were easily accessed and set up, providing techs with a work area for loading disruptors, preparing explosive charges, dressing out a technician in bomb suit, or other chores that are best conducted outside. This holds down on cramped, soiled or contaminated interior quarters.

     A 35-foot telescoping mast and camera mounted. on the back bumper has proven to be an invaluable accessory for the robot operator, who is now able to view the robot from a different perspective than just the robot's cameras. It also gives them an overall view of the operations area, for planning and security considerations. An adjacent ladder permits access alongside the tower for either maintenance or to access the roof for a photo or view platform.

     Additionally, there are two quartz halogen lights mounted on the rear bumper. Each may be telescoped in place, or may be detached from the truck and used with built-in tripods to provide powerful lighting on-scene. Power for these, and for all electrical needs, is provided by a diesel-fueled 12-kw generator made by Cummins Onan, the Fridley, Minnesota, company that makes generators for a variety of applications.

     Sharing the main truck fuel tanks, the power plant is capable of powering all the systems and equipment the bomb squad may use, while ensuring a healthy supply to avoid brownouts that may damage delicate electronics.

     Toward the rear passenger side, there is a roll-up door leading to a garage for the team's Andros robot. A slide-out gangway allows the robot to roll out to calls. The garage provides built-in storage; however, realizing the small amount of available space in that area has prompted the team plan for additional storage.

Interior features

     Inside, the team chose a combination of roll-up compartments and open compartments secured by cargo-type nets. This was a conscious decision, because items such as bomb suits stored behind the roll-up doors would not damage the doors if shifting during travel. Other items that could possibly damage the doors and inhibit access are better secured by the netting.

     The command area of the truck is also well thought out. Overhead radio consoles provide local radio nets, an AM/FM radio and a video recorder capable of recording from the robot and the mast camera. The desk provides space for the robot control station as well as room to set up a computer, work space for record-keeping and command activities, and drawer space for storage of all the administrative materials required to keep an operation on track. Two monitors are mounted on the wall over the desk that can be used to access the mast camera, robot cameras or digital X-ray images. This permits the robot operator, incident commander, or other decision-makers to observe a variety of operations simultaneously. Finally, a wall-mounted refrigerator and freezer provides cold storage for hydration supplies, which is vital in Florida's hot and humid climate, as well as storage of cool suit packs.

     Hostettler and his team were pleased with the cooperation, design and construction provided by E-One. They recognize the truck is not perfect — as they grow to learn more of its capabilities, they see aspects which were overlooked earlier, and which they are now acting to address. The team wishes to add a large-screen monitor, to be hung on the exterior of the truck, above the exterior work table, to give team members as well as agency and fire-rescue command staff the opportunity to observe scene images without interfering with interior operations.

     Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed on the agency was E-One's request to borrow and display the truck at the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators' (IABTI) 2007 International Training Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Thus even before formal delivery, St. Lucie County's new truck was seen by almost 1,000 delegates at the largest gathering of bomb response professionals in the world, who expressed admiration at the unit's design and construction.

Palm Beach County's project

     Thirty miles to the south lies Palm Beach County, encompassing 1.5 million people in a land mass of more than 2,000 square miles, the largest county east of the Mississippi River. Lt. Ralf Kreling commands the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Bomb, Arson and WMD Response Unit, which employs eight full-time bomb technicians, including a unit supervisor, two environmental investigators and five fire investigators on assignment from the Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Department. The sheriff's office's Bomb Squad provides primary bomb response for all but three communities in the county, plus is a state-designated regional bomb and WMD response team for South Florida.

     The agency maintains response teams for the bomb squad at headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida, plus a second location in Boca Raton, the anchor for the county's heavily populated southern portion. As such, they run one truck (a reconfigured fire-rescue ambulance) with a smaller NABCO TCV from the Boca site and a new, custom-made E-One unit towing a larger NABCO TCV with a WMD scrubbing system from headquarters. The old primary truck, now replaced by the E-One, is being reconfigured to the role of post blast and WMD investigation unit, towing a state-supplied equipment trailer.

     Det. Bill Gale, a senior bomb technician with the team, was the primary contact for the project. Palm Beach County's primary interest was technician comfort. This is a busy team, whether responding to actual incidents or providing support to the many VIP visits that the Palm Beaches generate every year, ranging from presidents and presidential candidates to foreign prime ministers, royalty and corporate moguls. Its technicians are busy, and providing comfort for them in this physical field became the primary consideration.

     Palm Beach County started off selecting a Freightliner standard cab, powered by a Mercedes diesel. This was an important consideration for them, as the relationship with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue (PBCFR) ensures that the agency provide maintenance support to its large trucks, and this is the frame PBCFR has chosen for its ambulances. It then designed a 21-foot cargo box for the workspace.

Comfort, power and storage

     To address technician comfort, most storage is accessible from the inside. However, there is some exterior storage, notably a compartment just behind the driver's door where the technician driving the unit can store his personal equipment. The full-time team has members on investigations, providing training or other field assignments, and each technician's take-home vehicle carries a variety of equipment. Getting a call for the team means one responding technician heads to quarters to drive the truck to the scene, while two other members of the team responds directly to the call. The compartment described above provides adequate space for the tech to store his personal tools and assigned protective gear.

     For electrical power, the sheriff's office also chose a 12-kw Onan diesel generator. It did not opt for a camera mast, although that may be a future addition. Southern Florida's tropical atmosphere also requires the need for the unit to have two roof-mounted air conditioning units to power.

     There are also two separate work stations in the unit. One is a dedicated station, designed for the control module for the team's Andros robot. The second is a command and control station, incorporating a computer, televisions, monitors, a video recorder and desk work space. Adjacent to this is a refrigerator/freezer unit, for cold drinks and cool suit modules.

     At the passenger rear of the truck is the robot garage, accessed through a roll-up door and driven out by a concealed ramp. This area is configured with storage, SCBAs hung on the wall and other overhead and wall-unit storage available.

     Between the garage and the work stations are several built-in storage units, incorporating roll-up doors. As with St. Lucie's, one of these doors is a full-length door, behind which is closet space to store the bomb suits and other protective clothing used by the team. Other areas conceal the various tools of the job — disruptors, X-ray equipment, demolition tools and hand tools.

     Similar to the St. Lucie County unit, there is a roll-out canopy on the passenger side of the truck. In Florida, the canopy provides cover in a multitude of conditions, from broiling sun to monsoon rains. Bomb calls are not selective when it comes to weather conditions, and teams must be able to function in all situations.

     With its size, activity and population, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is often an early recipient of cutting-edge equipment. One example is the receipt of the first Foster-Miller Talon delivered to the public safety community. Another example is the first NABCO large container TCV with WMD scrubbing system. As a result, Gale says that E-One staff members would scratch their heads in regard to some equipment storage needs and say, "We never saw that before." But he found E-One responsive; anything that the agency would design, E-One could find a construction solution for. The greatest challenge was adapting the Freightliner chassis with the long box on it to a trailer hitch system capable of handling the size of the TCV. But that issue was solved by the engineering staff at Emergency-One, and the TCV now follows the truck wherever it responds.

A new breed of bomb trucks

     The new breed of bomb trucks is not cheap. Both the St. Lucie County and Palm Beach County sheriff's offices combined grant monies with locally budgeted funds to put their wheels on the street. But several factors must be considered. First, most bomb squads are part time and calls for service are limited. A well-designed and constructed truck will provide many years of service, most likely to be replaced as its design becomes obsolete in the changing bomb disposal field. Second, with the changing emphasis on bomb squads to be WMD-response units, equipment needs have grown, as has the value and complexity of that equipment. Where one did not have much concern other than securing demolition tools and disruptors in a truck, new demands on the design of response equipment are driven by the variety of computer-based equipment which require more environmentally controlled storage and more delicate handling places.

     A job-specific design, built for the purpose at hand, will provide reliable response and on-site service, as opposed to legacy hand-me-down units that suffer constant mechanical and electrical breakdowns, and endanger bomb response capabilities, bomb technicians and ultimately the public.

     Paul Laska retired from a 29-year career in law enforcement. He may be contacted through his Web site at www.PaulRLaskaForensicConsulting.com.