Love at First Blast

A bomb technician typically does not wear his or her suit for more than 30 or 40 minutes. How does the hefty gear go to work in that short—but pensive—window of time?

Chris Cowan, a retired bomb squad commander for the Winnebago County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department and current technical training representative with Med-Eng, a brand of the Safariland Group, has suited up on a few occasions over the course of his 23-year career. He remembers well the adrenaline rush of detonation, the lurking danger, and the necessary tools for going in and getting out unscathed.

“Many years ago, early in my career, I was approached by the bomb squad commander who asked if I had any interest in joining his team,” says Cowan. “I didn’t have any military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) experience, but he said that didn’t matter because I would get plenty of training. He was right, and the training I’ve had over the years has been priceless.”

Heading out

On one occasion Cowan and two other technicians were called to a motorcycle gang clubhouse where a rival gang had placed a 10-pound IED (improvised explosive device) at the rear doorstep.

“I was standing approximately 10 to 12 feet away and wearing a suit. It was due to the suit that I…required a trip to the hospital rather than the morgue,” he says.

Reports of possible IEDs are often common in areas of high-crime/high gang activity.

“The area may be confined indoors or congested with garbage and obstacles outdoors, making it impossible to use the robot or other tools. This is when it becomes necessary to send a highly trained bomb disposal technician, in a suit, to make an approach and evaluate the situation.”

After the area is secured and citizens are evacuated from the danger zone, well-equipped officers go to work identifying what type of device he or she is dealing with and developing a course of action. The goal is always to conduct render safe procedures as remotely as possible.

IEDs come in many shapes and sizes, and the fact that they’re improvised makes them fairly easy to make inexpensively, though this doesn’t take away from their lethal capability. Upon detonation there’s usually mass destruction, not to mention death and/or injury caused by blast overpressure, heat, fragmentation and impact.

Full-body immersion

The suit has changed substantially since its inception in the late 1980s; in particular there have been marked improvements in weight, flexibility and protection. Today’s gear looks to protect the five senses while offering minimal physical discomfort.

For example, Med-Eng’s EOD 9 bomb suit and associated equipment incorporates helmet cam/camcorder, breathing apparatus, visor, chemical protective under garment, body cooling system, and a thigh mountable Hook and Line Tactical Tool Kit. Cowan says this type of suit is ideal if one is dealing with an actual explosive device.

For a scenario that primarily involves a high risk search for an explosive device, a lighter weight suit (Med-Eng offers the TAC 6) is ideal. Helmet included, the EOD 9 weighs approximately 70 pounds while the TAC 6 with protective EOD chest plate and helmet weighs approximately 45 pounds. An integrated air circulation system brings in outside ambient air through two particulate filters and circulates it throughout the helmet.

All this heft can be disorienting to first-timers. “Technicians may initially feel the weight of the suit, but this is generally overcome due to ergonomic design, proper training and good physical health,” says Cowan.

In most suits the helmet visor is designed so it does not interfere with normal field of view or peripheral vision, and built-in environmental awareness system and speakers in the ear pads of the helmet allow wearers to hear normal sounds, though in the event of a high decibel sound/blast event, audio cuts off. Sense of smell is not affected because the helmet does not seal around the neck.

Equipment aside, it’s always important to “respect the blast.”

“The first time I experienced an explosive detonation and felt the blast wave I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” says Cowan.

“I think I can confidently say that every bomb tech would say the same thing. A detonation is an amazing conglomerate of physics, but also has to be treated with the highest respect.”