RIVERSIDE, CALIF. -- When the FBI needed to disarm the Unabomber's final bomb while preserving potential evidence, it called on an elite team of bomb-disablement experts from Sandia National Laboratories and the City of Riverside Police Department. This week Sandia and Riverside PD are sharing the latest in bomb-disablement technology and expertise with members of the world's top bomb squads in a week-long, hands-on training conference in Riverside.
Operation Riverside, as the event is called, focuses on the science and methodology of bomb disablement, with emphasis on emerging technologies that keep "bomb techs" out of harm's way as they protect the public from criminals and terrorists whose devices grow more sophisticated and dangerous every day. Only members of the most advanced bomb squads are invited to participate in the event, scheduled for Aug. 10-17.
Sandia (a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory based in Albuquerque, New Mexico) hosted its first bomb squad training conference, called Operation Albuquerque, in 1994 after Sandia's Chris Cherry recognized a need to put tomorrow's bomb-disablement technologies into the arsenals of the nation's busiest bomb squads. The first event received wide acclaim from its participants. The following two conferences were held in Albuquerque and included top bomb techs from around the world. This is the first time the conference has been held in Riverside.
Expected to attend this year's conference are more than 100 specialists representing the bomb squads of major U.S. cities like New York, Houston, and Los Angeles; various state police departments; federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Secret Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; all branches of the U.S. armed forces; and anti-terrorist and law enforcement agencies from the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and several other countries.
"Every U.S. government agency involved in law enforcement and anti-terrorism are going to be here," says Cherry.
The National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Navy's Office of Special Technology are sponsoring the event, with logistical support from the City of Riverside, the FBI's Bomb Data Center, and the FBI/U.S. Army Hazardous Devices School (Huntsville, Ala.).
The Sandia/Riverside connection
The Sandia/Riverside connection goes back many years. Cherry has worked with Riverside PD Officer Vic Poisson for 15 years to develop advanced technology that keeps bomb techs at a safe distance during disablement. In 1997, for instance, Poisson developed for Sandia a radio-controlled mobile robot, called "Chuck Wagon," that delivers reconnaissance and bomb disablement equipment to the site of a suspected bomb.
Following Theodore Kaczynski's arrest in April 1996, the FBI called Cherry, Poisson, and Sandia's Rod Owenby to Kazcynski's remote Montana cabin to carefully disable "Device Number Seventeen," the Unabomber's final yet-unmailed bomb.
"Riverside PD has one of the most progressive, technologically advanced bomb squads in the country," says Cherry. "We are proud to work with Vic and his colleagues to protect the lives of bomb techs while learning to disable the increasingly complex terrorist bombs of tomorrow."
To stay ahead of the increasingly sophisticated anti-tamper and explosives devices being encountered in the world today, Cherry and his team research and develop some of the world's most technically advanced "render-safe" technologies, along with reconnaissance technologies to help categorize complex, terrorist-type bombs and assess their potential threats remotely.
Since 1992, Sandia has developed and licensed a family of bomb disablers for a variety of situations. Sandia's Percussion Actuated Nonelectric Disrupter, for example, has become the primary tool used by bomb squads nationwide to disable conventional, handmade-type bombs remotely, says Cherry. The PAN Disrupter was instrumental in safely disabling numerous suspect devices in Atlanta during the '96 Summer Olympic Games.
How these disablers work cannot be disclosed for security reasons, but each is designed to disrupt a bomb's internal gadgetry so quickly that it never has a chance to detonate.
Squads to respond to 48 realistic scenarios
During Operation Riverside, the PAN Disrupter and a variety of other Sandia disablers -- with cryptic names like the "Black Box" and "Magic Cube" -- will be deployed in realistic bomb-disablement scenarios by small teams of bomb tech "players" as they practice using the technologies to defeat some 150 mock bombs, many of which are booby trapped or have small charges that go off if players accidentally trip the devices.
"These aren't your run-of-the-mill pipe bombs," says Cherry. "The bomb techs who come here are concerned about more complex devices. Our goal is to give them the training they'll need to deal with the kinds of terrorist-type devices we think they'll encounter in the next 10 to 20 years."
In past Operation Albuquerque scenarios, teams were dispatched to locate and defeat bombs hidden in public places, such as at shopping malls, and disable bombs wired to hostages, for example. This year, eight tactical teams will respond to a total of 48 scenarios throughout Riverside and the surrounding area. Following each round of scenarios, players and observers from Sandia and the Hazardous Devices School will discuss and evaluate the teams' tactical approaches.
The conference includes classroom instruction and technical presentations on advanced disablement strategies, vehicle bombs, and other issues associated with current terrorist-type threats.
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.
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