The clock is ticking as you wipe sweat from your brow. Everything is riding on this moment, and the safety and well-being of thousands are in your hands. You are the difference-maker trying to stave off death and destruction, as you patiently and deliberately work to defuse the bomb in front of you. Such is the life of a member of the bomb squad.
Okay, maybe that's a little bit of an over-dramatization. But the stakes are certainly high, and the job is no stranger to danger. If you've seen "The Hurt Locker," "Speed," or "Blown Away," you've got a good idea of what Hollywood—and the rest of us—think of when you hear "bomb tech." Among law enforcement specialty units, the bomb squad folks hold a place of respect and awe. On the downside, movies and television shows play up the drama and suspense to what many bomb techs say is an unrealistic level while failing to capture what it means to work as a public safety bomb technician.
The History of Bomb Squads in the United States
The New York City Police Department created the first law enforcement bomb squad in the U.S. in 1903. It was headed by Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino, an Italian-American NYPD detective who had been assigned to investigate Mafia activity in New York.
During the period leading up to the formation of the squad, Italian immigrants were being extorted by members of the Mafia, most often through what we now call improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Petrosino and his squad—then known as the Italian Squad—worked undercover to uncover bombing plots and bring the bombers to justice.
In the early years, the bomb squad's role was more like that of an undercover detective and less about dismantling explosive devices. With the onset of World War I and mass-produced explosive munitions, the need to effectively deal with defective devices meant learning how to make ordnance safe. At the same time, devices with delayed fuses were making their way out of Germany and onto the battlefield, where the predecessors to the military's Explosive Ordnance Disposal units went to work defusing them.
Today, most medium-sized or larger police departments in the U.S employ a bomb squad, usually officially known as the Hazardous Devices Team (HDT) or unit.
What Do Bomb Technicians Do and Where Do They Work?
Hazardous devices teams can take different forms, depending on the city. The teams may be made up of a task force of police officers, sheriff's deputies, firefighters, and federal agents, or it may be entirely housed in a single department.
In most cases, especially in smaller areas, jobs with the bomb squad are part-time. In other words, if you work in the HDT, it's your secondary duty, next to patrolling as a police officer, working as a detective or training officer, or another job. In such cases, bomb squad members train periodically with their fellow team members and continue to perform their main functions unless called upon to investigate a suspicious device. Though it may at times be a secondary job, it's an important one, as events like the World Trade Center Bombing of 1993, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the Boston Marathon Bombing have illustrated.
In an article he penned for PolliceOne.com, former Knox County, Tennessee, Hazardous Devices Unit member Shawn Hughes states that the primary function of police bomb technicians is to "locate, diagnose, render safe, and make safe to investigate, bombs."
It also involves responding to countless reports of suspicious devices and packages, backpacks left in strange locations, and working closely with other state, local, and federal agencies and anti-terrorism task forces. Bomb squad members are subject to call out at any time and may have to travel to assist around their region or the country.
In addition, many hazardous devices teams are called to remove old military ordnance from places such as people's backyards where, believe it or not, they were left and buried by now-defunct military bases and airfields. In fact, such calls are surprisingly common.
When not actively on a call, full-time bomb technicians may spend their days training, practicing, and even building devices to learn more about how the mind of a bomber works and how to better respond to suspicious device calls. They also train to identify devices and evidence for crime scene technicians.
One thing hazardous devices team members try to avoid, contrary to what the movies tell you, is approaching a device unless they have to. While their techniques and tactics are largely secret, bomb technicians have lots of technology and gear available to them to help them make a device safe without getting close, including specialized robots that can defuse devices remotely.
What Does It Take to Join a Bomb Squad?
In most cases, you need to become a police officer and spend time working the road and gaining experience in law enforcement before you can be selected for a specialty unit like the bomb squad. That will mean completing a police academy, passing a certification exam, and getting hired in law enforcement. Most departments require candidates to have a minimum of two years of experience before they are considered for special units.
Typically, as with any law enforcement specialty position, current officers can apply when a position in their department becomes vacant. Sometimes, a candidate that demonstrates qualities the bomb squad is looking for may be asked to join, or they may undergo a selection process, tests, and interviews.
Current bomb techs say candidates need to be able to handle tight spaces, understand and explain difficult concepts and diagrams, and be effective communicators. You also need to be able to listen to, understand, and follow orders expediently.
Candidates who are chosen for the bomb squad train at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. After training, new bomb squad members apprentice with senior teammates to learn the ins and outs of the job.
Job Growth and Salary Outlook
There's not typically high turnover in the bomb squad, given the amount of training and expertise required. Retirements and transfers do occur, and as departments continue to evolve in their responses to terrorist threats, these units may expand. Still, job openings will likely be hard to come by.
Bomb squad members usually earn the same as the average for police officers in their rank, around $50,000 to $60,000 annually or more. They may also earn on-call pay and hazard pay to supplement their base salaries.
Is a Career as a Bomb Squad Member Right for You?
If you're the kind of person who likes gadgets and learning how things work, or if you like to tinker and enjoy problem solving, working as a bomb technician may be the perfect criminology career for you. It's not, however, a career without risks. While any law enforcement job is inherently dangerous, working as a bomb squad technician comes with some specific and significant risks, so it should not be entered into lightly.