Technologically Speaking host Dee Saini is joined by Byung Hee Kim who shares how her time in the military prepared her for her current role as S&T’s Response and Defeat Operations Support (REDOPS) program manager. Tune in to this episode as Byung Hee takes us back to her childhood in South Korea and shares both the journey that led her to work on counter-IED (improvised explosive device) efforts for the U.S. Marine Corps and for our nation’s bomb squads through her work at S&T. While we shine a spotlight on Byung Hee, she does the same for the unsung heroes of emergency response and ingenuity.
Run time: 26:31
Recorded on: June 1, 2022
Technologically Speaking Transcript: The Bomb Squad Is Not an Afterthought
Guest: Byung Hee Kim, Program Manager for REDOPS at the Science and Technology Directorate
Host: Deepak Saini, Media Strategist
[00:00:00] Deepak: Hi, I'm Deepak Saini. You can call me Dee, and I work for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S & T as we call it. Join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking. Welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking. I'm one of your hosts, Deepak, or Dee Saini. Today, I'm joined by Byung Hee Kim, a program manager for REDOPS in the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Welcome, Byung Hee.
[00:00:35] Byung Hee: Hi, how are you?
[00:00:37] Deepak: I'm great. I'm so glad to have you here.
[00:00:40] Byung Hee: I'm happy to be here.
[00:00:42] Deepak: All right. So, for anyone listening, who might not know, REDOPS stands for response and defeat operation support, which is R&D for bomb squads. At S&T we take a really collaborative approach to address IED response and capability gaps for federal, state and local bomb technicians. So, I'm excited to learn all about that Byung Hee, but before we get into that, I want to take you way back. So, let's go to when you were a child, did you always imagine as a little five-year-old Byung Hee, that you would one day work, in this type of work?
[00:01:17] Byung Hee: Not as a five-year-old. I think I wanted to be an astronaut, not dealing with bombs.
[00:01:23] Deepak: What inspired you to want to be an astronaut? I feel like, when we were kids, there was so much, with NASA and the movies that were coming out. I found those really inspirational. I mean, I considered it once.
[00:01:37] Byung Hee: Well, you know, it was, I grew up in Korea. And, I remember watching a lot of scifi films, and, uh, anime. There's a lot of anime in Korea when I was a kid. And space travel and things like that. And that really intrigued me. So, I was thinking, huh, astronaut might be good. And if that falls through, then, I'll be a doctor. Being a doctor, every Asian parent aspires to that. So.
[00:02:00] Deepak: I know that all too well. So, how did you get interested into this kind of work? Was it later on in life? Was it through perhaps like another primary career you had already started? I'm just kind of curious about your origin story.
[00:02:17] Byung Hee: Oh, well, I mean, it's really simple, honestly. I started off in the military and, it's through the Navy and also working for the Marine Corps that I was exposed to the counter IED field. And this is when we were doing the Iraq surge, uh, the beginning of the Iraq war. And, I was assigned a program manager for counter IED, which back in 2003, it was fairly new. It was something that wasn't a big program within the Department of Defense. Actually, it didn't come into light and it didn't really take off until Afghanistan. And then, you know, when we started sending forces to Iraq, they started ramping up counter IED program all over to DOD. So that's how I was exposed. It was early on in my, in my Navy career.
[00:03:10] Deepak: That is so interesting. And I'm so glad you shared that. Did S&T kind of fall in line shortly after that, or how did you come to get to know about the Science and Technology Directorate?
[00:03:21] Byung Hee: Well, so in the Marine Corps, I was at the Marine Corps War Fighting Laboratory, which is kind of like the, fast acting research and development, testing and evaluation to try to get technology out to the Marine Corps as quickly as possible. And as you can imagine, when we're sending our mass amount of Marine Corps forces into Iraq, we needed to give them the proper tools for the counter IED defeat. So, I was supposed to go to the Marine Corps War Fighting Lab as the Naval Advisor for amphibious operations. But because this need came along and there wasn't an officer in charge of the counter IED program that was starting up, they asked me if I wanted to do it. So, with a supporting arms coordination, background and fire support background, they thought that I would be the perfect fit for this. So, they asked me to stand up their first counter IED program.
[00:04:15] Deepak: That's fascinating. Isn't it uncanny sometimes how you kind of have one trajectory for your life, but then the world has other plans for you?
[00:04:26] Byung Hee: Yeah, it happens all the time.
[00:04:29] Deepak: So how long have you been at S&T? Since 2010. So I was, I've been at S&T for a while, starting off at the Explosives Division and this was before many re-orgs. But, when I first came onboard, it was at the Explosives Division. Got it. And then when did you become a program manager for REDOPS?
[00:04:49] Byung Hee: That was around 2014, 2015 timeframe. The person who originally had it, was, Bill Stout. And then when I came on board, we pretty much worked together to stand up this program.
[00:05:03] Deepak: When you came into this role, was there a big, I feel like at S&T there's always a problem in front of us, and then we're responsible with the solution. What, what was going on at the time that you feel like you were being tasked with and you really had to kind of execute?
[00:05:20] Byung Hee: Well, when I first came on board, we were just funded a little bit for the REDOPS program. It, came, the funding came right after the Boston Marathon bombing. And the leadership at the time was wondering why there wasn't a dedicated program within the First Responders Group, supporting bomb squads. So, like I said, Bill was given a little bit of funding. Then I came along and then it was trying to develop a program for, a community that needed much needed technology and capability development. And I'm not saying that we were the only federal government that was doing this. FBI had their R&D program. ATF had a small R&D program, but they needed a central figure that was bringing in R&D experience to help those federal partners, to develop and to help transition some of the R&D technologies and R&D capabilities. And it evolved so much now that we have a really strong partnership with the FBI. And the reason why we need the FBI is because they're the national program managers for render safe. And we are tasked with providing support for the first responders and it just became a natural partnership.
[00:06:41] Deepak: Yeah, without the FBI, a lot of the work that we do, wouldn't be possible. In the years that the REDOPS program has been in existence, I mean, I'm floored by how much success we've seen, obviously with you at the lead. From what I understand, we have more than 40 tools that have been built by more than 200 different bomb squads, which is so great to hear. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of those success stories?
[00:07:07] Byung Hee: Well, that's even, that's just a handful. We're finding out more and more. We're getting more and more inputs every day from, bomb techs and from their commanders, telling us all the tools that they built, and they've used this operationally. First successes that put us on the map is through what's called micro-R&D. And that is basically locally manufactured tools. And what I mean by locally manufactured tools is bomb techs have this uncanny ability to, think not only on the fly, but also think very creatively. And they pretty much develop their own tools or tools that are too expensive to buy that they build on. And I hate to say this, but quote unquote, on the cheap. So, they come across a problem, they try to find a solution to it, and usually those solutions stay within the squads and it doesn't get out anywhere else. And so, one of the first trips that we went up to New Jersey, we were just talking to the New Jersey State Police bomb techs there, and somebody, and I forgot who was rummaging through their truck. And we found this really weird spool looking thing with tape all over it. And we said, Hey, what is this? And you said, oh, those are, uh, shock tube dispensers. Uh, we were trying to, buy some from a company that supplies, shock tube dispensers to DOD, but for liability reasons, they won't sell to state and local bomb techs. And we're like, okay, so you guys created this to solve a problem. And they said, Yeah, because if they're not going to sell to us, we'll just make one. And I looked at it and I said, well, how much did this cost to make? And they said, oh, I don't know with the stuff that we have on hand, maybe $20 if at that.
[00:09:03] Byung Hee: So, we're looking at this and we're thinking, well, if New Jersey has a need for a tool like this, then there might be other people that have the need for tools like that. So, what we did was we started to process partnering with the FBI at the time and testing for safety, testing for effectiveness. We drew an instruction from a to z on how to properly build it. We had it published through the Special Technicians Bulletin, which is, published by the FBI. And fast forward many years now we know that the Hazardous Devices School, which is a school that trains bomb techs and re-certifies bomb techs—they are teaching bomb techs how to build this particular tool so that they could use it for their operations, namely for the tactical bomb tech community. So, that's one of the first tools that we developed and one of the first major successes.
[00:10:01] Deepak: That's so interesting to hear. I feel like a lot of American ingenuity comes from curiosity, grit, and just the American spirit in general. Speaking of that, can you talk to me about this fascinating father and daughter team Arlin and Hanna Vanderbilt and what they came up with?
[00:10:20] Byung Hee: Oh, yes! Oh, what a great team. Arlin is the Bomb Squad Commander at San Francisco and, his daughter, Hanna is such a sweet girl. I had a chance to meet her at the Bomb Squad Commanders Conference. And so the father and daughter team decided that they're going to build a tool that was much needed in the community, which is the dual battery tester. And so basically you use this tester to see how much voltage you have in your battery and, Arlin thought of the idea, but he didn't know, how to draw the CADs and stuff like that. So, Hanna did it and with both their minds together, they built this really portable, really usable and effective battery tester. And it was a hit during the Bomb Squad Commanders Conference. A lot of commanders came by looking at that particular tool and asking to build some of those. So, of course, those are published. So, any bomb tech can go into the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal and get directions on how to build one of those. And, because of their contribution, Arlin and Hanna got the micro-R&D t-shirts, which only 50 people have. And, one of my guys, one of my performers, Jeff David liked to say that even I, the person who runs the program doesn't have a shirt because I haven't contributed and published a micro idea. So I think that's funny.
[00:11:47] Deepak: You know, what's really amazing about this is, our listeners know this is a father daughter team, but they don't realize how young the daughter is. She's probably a teen or a preteen. And the fact that she came up with this, I mean, I, it makes some of us adults feel like we haven't accomplished much yet.
[00:12:07] Byung Hee: Well, she's,13. And yeah, very young. And the only contributor still in the teens and who still, who got the shirt and who's not part of the bomb tech community. Yeah. She's one of the first, for many.
[00:12:24] Deepak: Yeah, she's definitely got a bright future ahead of her. And we also have another example, James Jackson, who supposedly published the most inventions, I believe about six bomb squad tools. If you want to go into that.
[00:12:37] Byung Hee: Oh, wow. And the list keeps going. And what a brilliant guy. And here's, what's odd about this. I shouldn't say odd. I should say more funny. Cause when we first met him in a risk—and it was during an exercise and, it was a Raven's challenge exercise. And he had his truck there. And we were asking him different things. Cause you know, my guys and I, when we go out to different places and we see, people who bring their trucks, we like to ask them things about the tools that are in the trucks. Usually we find the same old, like the same x-ray system, same disruptors, things of that nature. But, we were digging through the trucks and, you know, I can't take credit for this. It was my guys. I wasn't there at the time, but, they were digging through the trucks and they're like, well, what's this? And they're like, oh yeah, this is for blah-blah-blah. And then, we would pick out another toy and we're like, Hey, what is this? This obviously look like you made it. And it was one thing after another. And when we're picking out all these things, he's like, well I didn't think that you guys would be interested in it because I didn't think it was cool enough. And lot a bomb techs think that when they create their own tools, they don't think that it's a big deal. And Jim Jackson is a one of those individuals. I mean, not only did we find tools in his trucks, but, he's been participating in the REDOPS coordination calls for the longest time. And when we asked him and I mean, it was a funny story too, because he was telling us all these tools that he has and we're like, well, why didn't you, why didn't you tell us? And he goes, well, I didn't think that they were cool. And he goes, well, how did you know, we were looking for them? And he said, well, I'm on your calls. And we're like, are you serious? Like you're on your calls. And know, we've been harping all the time to contribute ideas if you guys have it. So, a lot of these guys, not only are they smart, but I think they're very modest too.
[00:14:39] Deepak: Oh, of course. And what's interesting is, everyone involved is trying to help for the greater good of public safety. Can you talk to me a little bit about, bomb squads? You see them in movies, you hear about them in the news, but I feel like sometimes below the surface, we don't always really understand what their work or their lives are like. When you're explaining that to a family member or a grandmother, like how do you help them understand the importance of who they are in the work that they do?
[00:15:12] Byung Hee: Well, I mean, I think if you mentioned to anybody bomb technicians, they know that it's for neutralizing bombs, but what I like to tell people is, the government spends a lot of money for detection and it's detecting the next threat or detecting the emerging threat. And, while we spend a lot of money on different X-ray systems and different detection systems. I don't think a lot of people think, well, what happens when you find it? And that's the part that I think people don't think about is once we find that next generation threat or that emerging threat that no one's ever seen, we expect to just hand it off to the bomb tech and say, here. That's just not the way of doing business because we need to show the bomb techs like, look, this is an emerging threat. We need to contribute to you guys so that when the next generation threat is discovered, then you know how to effectively neutralize the IED. So, I think, that's the biggest thing that I would like to hit home. And this is what I like to tell people is the bomb squad is not an afterthought. It should be a community that's nurtured, and they should be having all these updated technologies and capabilities. So, when that happens, they're properly equipped to deal with the threat.
[00:16:30] Deepak: That's so important to say, because I feel like this is why we do the work that we do at the Science and Technology Directorate where we’re trying to stay in front of things, we're trying to predict what might happen in the future. So, so we always have safety in mind. Do you feel like in this work though, given the importance and the value of what we do, that you run into some challenges or roadblocks and how do you overcome those?
[00:16:54] Byung Hee: Well, are you talking, do I run into the challenges and roadblocks, or does the bomb tech run into challenges and roadblocks?
[00:17:02] Deepak: I would say in our part of the R&D work that comes into aiding bomb technicians.
[00:17:10] Byung Hee: Well, I think first and foremost, the biggest, the challenge I have is the budget. And that's like that with any program, right? Is make sure your budget is secure. Yeah. So that I would say that's my biggest challenge, but, as far as. Anything else, I mean, it is a challenge, yes, but nothing you can that you can't overcome, like, technology, market surveys, seeing what's out there, I would say that budget and anticipating the next threat is probably the two of the biggest challenges.
[00:17:45] Deepak: Oh, of course. And we need, like, as you said earlier, we need the budget to do the work that we do. Can you walk me through a little bit about maybe some of the tools and technologies that we're creating? For example, how does a tool go from a prototype to being part of the FBI Hazardous Devices School curriculum?
[00:18:07] Byung Hee: Well, so we have, different parts of the REDOPS program, and each of them have a different transition into either the Hazardous Devices School or directly to the community. So, I talked about micro and the micro can be given to the community in two different ways. One is direct through the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal and the other one is direct through the Hazardous Devices School. So that's for the micro side. We also have, what's called the test bed assessments, and I haven't really touched on that a little bit, but what the test bed assessment is that we assess either group of technologies or capabilities. And when I say capabilities, we're talking more experimentation for the bomb squad communities. So, one of the things that, for one example is a few years ago, we did an experiment, or I shouldn't say experiment. We did a testbed assessment in New York City for remote fire devices. And that is to allow the bomb tech to safely conduct render-safe operations from a distance. And, because a lot electronics is involved, we need to make sure that it works in certain environments. And we had different vendors bring in their remote firing devices, and we did a testing at Time Square. We did a testing during the Jaguars and the Jets game at MetLife Stadium. We tested in subways, we tested in buildings, every single scenario you could think of that bomb squads from all across the United States would probably run into. Because of this assessment, we were able to distinguish which remote firing devices worked in what scenario. And I can't, I'm not going to go into specifics here, but New York Police Department bomb squad—so, they originally selected A. But after our assessment, they had to go back and stop that procurement to get the correct one, because the previous one that they selected did not work in urban canyons. So that would be a big issue for the New York City bomb squad, because if they selected A, then it would not work in tall building situations.
[00:20:27] Deepak: That's fascinating. I feel like that's why your role is as important as it is because we have to do the homework. Right? So, so teams like bomb squads can really assess and determine with our guidance, what's going to be the best route for them to keep the public safe. So, you should feel proud of the work that you do at the end of the day. And I hope you do.
[00:20:50] Byung Hee: Oh, I really am. I really am. You know, the greatest gratification that I have with this program is when we identify a problem, and we identify we could see the turnaround in the community right away. So, we could see I mean, it's just like, I wouldn't say instant gratification, but we could see the changes that what we're doing is making for the community.
[00:21:14] Deepak: And that's a beautiful thing. Byung Hee, when you look back on your career, especially with your time at S&T, what advice do you have for students that might be interested in STEM programs or maybe they're already in it, but they, looking at our future might not feel as hopeful. Are there any pearls of wisdom you've learned along the way that you'd like to share?
[00:21:38] Byung Hee: Well, I kind of find that a trick question, cause I'm not from the STEM community. And only a handful of my folks are from the STEM community, cause our program is still operationally focused and we do have, folks from the STEM that advise us into, or provide, genuine knowledge into, our products. But I don't know if I could tell somebody who's really interested in this type of work, I would say, do it because you don't know what you're going to get. And if you have an idea of what you want, go after it. Because I think especially in a platform like DHS, S & T I feel that the world is your oyster. You could do, you could create any program you want if it’s within reason. But, if it means to help the community, help our components, help, DHS provide a safer environment for citizens, I think it's a way to go. It's a great platform.
[00:22:32] Deepak: I completely agree. I, so I want to know when you're not busy working with your demanding role, what are some of your hobbies and interests that are totally unrelated to your job?
[00:22:46] Byung Hee: Totally unrelated? Uh, let's see. I'm a huge fitness nut, so I like, going to the gym. I like working out, I like sports. I also like wines. I'm aspiring to be a Sommelier.
[00:23:01] Deepak: That is fascinating. Yeah, no, I saw the I'm sure you've seen it then, the Netflix special.
[00:23:08] Byung Hee: Some ..
[00:23:09] Deepak: Sommelier yeah. Yeah, that's it. I had no idea that was a profession. I had no idea that people spent their whole lives on that. I mean, to basically smell a wine and know nothing about it, but to be able to pinpoint exactly what region of the world it came from, maybe what kind of fruit trees were growing around it, what the air or the weather patterns were like. I mean, that is fascinating. Just from sipping, wine.
[00:23:36] Byung Hee: It gets very in depth. I mean, you're looking not only sipping, but you're looking at the color and you're taking in the, the aromas and yeah, it's pretty extensive. And you know, I'm at, I'm at an intermediate. For me to go to the next phase is going take a long time because, compared to my other peers, I'm not from the service industry, obviously, because I'm doing this full time and then, the wine is a hobby. So yeah, it's gonna be a while before I get up to the advanced but I'm happy where I'm at, you know, I still get to taste wines and stuff, so.
[00:24:09] Deepak: Hey, at the end of the day, that's all people really want. You're a fascinating person I mean, just from talking to you during this interview, that you're, there's so much more to you than just what you do for a living. So, it's great that, I get to share this experience and learn more from you. So, I'm curious to know, are there any, like thoughts and emotions that bring to the surface for you when you think of the word science?
[00:24:37] Byung Hee: Well, the only thought that comes out when I think science, is innovation and finding solutions, because as this world evolves, science has to evolve with it. And without science, I think we'll just be at a standstill. Everything would be stagnant. And I think science keeps us going. Science forces us to evolve.
[00:25:00] Deepak: Yeah, I completely agree with you. it's the one thing that's always, oh my God. I'm about to relate this to something my dad told me. And I, okay, so math I've never been good at, at all. And I never liked it and I still don't and I still use my fingers to count, but the one thing my dad always told me was like math is.
[00:25:20] There's a surety to it. There's always going to be a solution at the end. It's the journey it takes you to get there. And I feel like science is very much the same way, right? There's so many knowns, but unknowns, but there's definitely a way to figure out those unknowns.
[00:25:37] Byung Hee: Oh, definitely. Completely agree with you.
[00:25:42] Deepak: Well, Byung Hee I've really enjoyed listening to you. This conversation has been great. It's been eye opening, and I think you've really brought the point home about the importance of why we do to support our bomb technicians out in the field who are working so hard every day to keep us and our family safe. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:26:00] Byung Hee: Oh, thank you for having me. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.
[00:26:06] Deepak: This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S & T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS Scitech. Thanks for listening.