Disarming Danger: Inside bomb tech training
The most likely threat of domestic terrorism facing everyday people are improvised explosive devices.
So what is being done to keep us safe?
13 Investigates recently went inside the secret world of bomb techs for a rare look into the FBI's elite training. Techs from Indiana and across the country learn it's "do or die" on the front line.
"Range control...farmhouse requesting to fire!"
"This is range safety, you're clear to fire."
"Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole," yells one of two bomb technicians before pushing a button on a remote control device. Within a second, the sound of a loud explosion bellows from up the drive. Bomb techs have taken out an explosive in a rural farm community.
In an evacuated neighborhood miles away from that farm, a group of FBI bomb experts provide a briefing to responding crews.
"The gentleman popped 'hot' on the terrorism watch list," the tech reported.
A routine traffic stop ends at a home with the capture of a suspected international terrorist. What investigators found inside sets off alarm.
"He has been affiliated with groups known to use explosives in attacks," he added.
Real Life Training Scenarios
Everything about the scenes appear real, but they are actually training scenarios.
ATF agents, police officers and firefighters attending bomb tech school must determine within minutes if the home is "booby trapped" with explosives.
Special Agent Jeffrey Warren, who oversees the training reveals the alarming reality, "IEDs are the weapon of choice of terrorists," both international and domestic, he said.
Before stepping a foot into the "red zone," the team launches its most revered weapon. The robot opens doors into the unknown.
13 Investigates is the first TV station in nearly a decade to get this rare view into the world of bomb technicians, those on the front line of responding to bomb threats.
Inside the massive army installation at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, the country's only Hazardous Devices School, trainees get six weeks to prove they've got what it takes.
Required Training for U.S. Bomb Technicians
Every bomb tech in the country, all 3,000 of them, must pass certification at Redstone Arsenal.
What teams learn impacts safety within Indiana's borders and beyond.
"It's a new world. Terrorism is different," explained FBI Special Agent Ed Marshman.
Marshman has spent years piecing together the remains of explosives, including the tiny fragments left behind by the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
"December 21, 1988, 7:10pm," he said, drawing attention to the time and date stuck in his memory. "That was a tremendous impact. I mean hundreds of people lost their lives."
Marshman is now in charge of certification at the school teaching new bomb techs to detect and disarm deadly IEDs before they go off.
"This is a tremendous responsibility," he said.
"Rendering Bombs Safe"
Back on the farm, a two-man team prepares to diffuse a suspected IED in a horse barn. The techs suited up in protected gear, they carry not just the weight of their actions but layers of a hot, heavy bomb suit topped with a 45-minute air pack.
"If you need air, If you have difficulty breathing, make sure you let the instructor know," the trainees are reminded.
Our cameras allowed unparalleled access behind the scenes with one stipulation: The faces of the bomb techs in training must be concealed their identities kept secret. Terrorists are known to put bounties on the lives of bomb techs, up to $20,000 to take one out.
"Step right out here for me. That's good right there. Give me three," said the instructor getting ready for a detonation.
"Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!" responds the tech trainee.
After getting clearance, the trainee gives a thumbs up and pushes the remote to render the explosive safe.
Extensive Training Grounds
Nine-hundred acres of training grounds are built up like communities all across the country, including neighborhoods, business districts, utilities, and transportation hubs.
"A lot of the props and things that we're using, some of it is based on real cases," explained Special Agent Warren, who says the training crosses all possible acts of terrorism. "Whether it's an explosive device, a chemical device, biological, radiological or nuclear device, anything that we have to worry about being used against our nation and used against the public."
In fact, there are likely more incidents than we ever hear about.
"Boston, of course, that event is something that reminds us of how important what we do is every day," Warren said of the bomb blasts at the finish line of last year's Boston Marathon.
Explosives in Indiana
Here in Indiana, there were 74 bombings and 238 explosives recovered between 2011 and 2012. That doesn't include the full call-outs for suspicious packages like one last summer at the Indianapolis federal building that sent employees and daycare children scrambling for safety.
Nationwide, the ATF reports nearly 2,000 bombings across the country and more than 11,000 explosives recovered.
A Risky Job
For those who brave the suit, it's like going into battle each call.
One 28-year-old instructor is headed back to Afghanistan, where he will help soldiers disarm IEDs in the field.
"This job is dangerous enough," he told 13 Investigates. "Even after we train people and we tell them to do things the absolute safest way possible."
Everyday, teams are reminded of what's at stake.
Near the entrance of the school sits the Nation's Bomb Tech Memorial. The names of 15 fallen techs killed in the line of duty are etched in granite.
Two of the fallen died on September 11, 2001. The most recent died in 2008. Senior Trooper William Hakim of the Oregon State Police was killed moving an explosive.
"I came from Oregon, he was my friend. I worked with him for 10 years. That was another tragic day," said Marshman.
It's the risk of coming face-to-face with an IED.
Each new class must work under the shadow of the memorial wall. It's a constant force, reflecting the mission of those who dare to step forward, when danger calls.
Advances in training and technology give bomb techs more information than ever before. Still, certified bomb techs must return for re-evaluation every three years for new training.
Right now, there are 466 pre-determined bomb squads nationwide. It means bomb squads cover multiple communities. The FBI keeps a clear handle on the teams and has a special arrangement with the U.S. Army to oversee the required tech training.