It takes a special kind of person to be a bomb technician—someone who is brave, disciplined, determined, levelheaded, and creative. Operators must effectively employ critical thinking and problem-solving skills while working in stressful, potentially life-threatening situations. As a result, bomb technicians’ ability to expect the unexpected and adjust accordingly has created a consistent pipeline of do-it-yourself (DIY) inventions to solve everyday issues they face, and the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) works to validate and distribute these new capabilities.
Focusing on Smaller Solutions Can Have a Big Impact
Necessity is the mother of invention, and S&T has proudly helped bring many new scientific solutions into this world through its Response and Defeat Operations Support (REDOPS) program. REDOPS supports public safety bomb technicians across the nation by providing a collaborative structure for addressing improvised explosive device (IED) capability gaps. The REDOPS program consists of three focus areas: Bomb Squad Test Bed, Traditional Research and Development (R&D), and Micro R&D. Since it was stood up in 2016, the Micro R&D portfolio has worked with bomb squads across the country to identify useful DIY tools created by their team members to meet specific needs. All products are assessed for safety and effectiveness prior to being shared with the broader community via the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s secure online Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal.
“We have direct communication with state and local bomb squads across the country through S&T’s First Responder Resource Group (FRRG),” explained REDOPS Program Manager Byung Hee Kim. “We are also involved with the National Bomb Squad Commander’s Advisory Board, as well as the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School and Counter-IED Program. These partnerships are invaluable when it comes to searching for scientific solutions to operational challenges for our nation's bomb squads.” REDOPS also participates in the U.S. Army-funded Raven’s Challenge exercise series, U.S. Bomb Technicians Association events, National Tactical Officers Association events, and other state and local exercises to identify user innovations.
The following is a sampling of REDOPS Micro R&D tools making a difference on the frontline.
Father-Daughter Team Charged Up and Ready to Go
The job of a bomb technician is unquestionably dangerous, which is why their equipment must be unfailingly reliable. Unfortunately, the batteries that power bomb technicians’ X-ray generators often lack battery power indicators to let the users know when charging is required. To avoid having an X-ray generator run out of power during a response, bomb technicians often measure the voltage with a multi-meter. This method is time consuming and introduces a complex process that requires ancillary expertise to successfully complete.
Sergeant Arlin Vanderbilt of the San Francisco Police Department Bomb Squad recognized the problem and knew he could find a better solution. It turns out necessity isn’t just the mother of invention—sometimes it’s the father and the daughter, too. Vanderbilt sought out help from his 14-year-old daughter, Hanna. It seems for the Vanderbilts, family bonding time means inventing emergency response capabilities.
“I thought it would be a great project for her,” said Vanderbilt. “We took some measurements, sat down, and drew it out and then she did all the CAD (computer-aided design) work. I think we printed three prototypes before hitting on the right shape.”
Using Hanna’s 3D design and printing expertise paired with Arlin’s electronics knowledge, this dynamic duo created a quick, easy, and reliable voltage measuring tool that enables a bomb technician to determine the health of their X-ray generator batteries.
Now that it has been thoroughly assessed by other bomb squad technicians and evaluated by S&T, detailed instructions for how to build and use the voltage measuring tool are being securely shared with bomb squads across the country. Their invention will increase technicians’ confidence in their equipment before going down range of an IED and will help countless colleagues avoid equipment failures.
In recognition of her special contribution, Hanna was bestowed the first-ever S&T “Young Innovator Award.” She also received a special REDOPS t-shirt reserved for inventors with published ideas. To date, only bomb technicians have received the shirt. Hanna is the first-ever civilian—and high school student—to join the club. Her father was given a matching shirt as well.
Slicing Through Obstacles
The spirit of innovation can be found in all ages. While Hanna Vanderbilt may just be beginning her journey of ingenuity, James Jackson is an experienced expert. Now retired, Jackson dutifully served as Commander of the New York State Police Bomb Squad and is the most published bomb squad inventor in the country. His six published inventions have him sitting comfortably at the top of the leader board and the REDOPS team is still reviewing other inventions by Jackson for possible publication on the FBI’s secure online portal.
His suite of bomb squad solutions includes the Whale Blade, which he developed to assist in IED render-safe operations. REDOPS team members saw the original Whale Blade during a Raven’s Challenge exercise in Oriskany, New York, and redesigned the blade so that any bomb squad across the country could reliably build it. Since its publication in 2019, at least 15 squads have built the Whale Blade.
Deputy Thomas Groff, Bomb Squad Commander of the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office, is just one colleague who was able to build his own Whale Blade based on REDOPS Micro-R&D instructions he securely accessed online. Groff has found the device incredibly useful on the job.
“We had a remote control car improvised incendiary device,” explained Groff. “And we decided that mechanical disassembly was preferable to an energetics one. Since there was quite a bit of tape involved in the device, I decided to have them load the Whale Blade onto the bomb disposal robot. The blade sliced through the tape holding components together without a problem . . . so much so that the blade actually went right through the bottom of the remote control car at the end of the operation.”
The original manufacturer of the main component of this device has stopped making it. The market is slowly running out of the part, and so the search for a new Whale Blade is underway. It is a risk bomb squads take when developing commercial-of-the-shelf tools, but it likely won’t be long until a crafty technician finds an alternative.
A Shockingly Useful Invention
During a visit from S&T’s FRRG and REDOPS, as well as FBI and others, the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Bomb Squad demonstrated a DIY Shock Tube Dispenser, designed by Mike Klag, Jim Abbes, and Mike Agnes, that they had been using during explosive response operations. The visiting officials immediately knew this tool could provide value to the broader bomb squad community and recommended NJSP document their development and publish it. Recognizing the challenge for first responders to take time out of their schedule to develop such documentation, REDOPS offered their support. Team REDOPS wrote two FBI Special Technicians Bulletins: one described a manually deployed shock tube dispenser and the other a robotic deployed shock tube dispenser. Since publication, the manual version has been implemented in the FBI Tactical Bomb Technician program and squads across the country are currently making and using this tool with great success.
In fact, the Shelby County, Tennessee, Bomb Squad Commander recently reached out to say, “Just letting you know we have built the Shock Tube Dispenser from the instructions published in the Special Technicians Bulletin. We use these operationally quite often and issue them out to everyone on our team who is a certified explosive breacher. This bulletin has saved us time and money.”
One never knows exactly what awaits in the field during an emergency response and the mental agility required by the job of a bomb squad technician goes hand-in-hand with innovation. So far, more than 200 bomb squads have built Micro R&D tools to fulfill all sorts of mission requirements. The REDOPS Micro R&D program is a demonstrated means of delivering quality capabilities to bomb squads across the country quickly and for minimal cost. As the former Kentucky State Police Bomb Squad Commander, Jim Adkins, recently put it, “We look forward to participating and appreciate all of the work you are doing with the REDOPS program. It really means a lot to those of us that operate on a shoestring budget.”
S&T will continue to fund ingenious ideas from technicians in the field, and then publish new products that meet criteria for safety and effectiveness so bomb squads across the nation—and the communities they protect—can benefit.