Originally created 08/19/04

Bomb squad faces danger with care

Richmond County sheriff's Capt. P.A. Williams wants you to forget the movies you've seen where a bomb technician, sweat beading down his forehead, nervously cuts the red wire linking explosives and a digital clock counting down to obliteration.

That's not real life, he said.

"It's nothing like the movie Speed," Capt. Williams said.

The sheriff's department Bomb Disposal Unit, managed by Capt. Williams, doesn't take chances like Hollywood actors portray in big-screen thrillers.

He's not about to risk the life of one of his bomb specialists.

"They're like my kids," Capt. Williams said, speaking of the six specialists in the sheriff's office.

"I love them. Safety is the first issue. That's all we care about. Saving lives is our first priority," he said.

One of the squad members is his son, Capt. Williams admitted, but all of the specialists are important to him.

With the addition of new bomb detection and removal equipment headed to Richmond County early next year, the bomb squad will further ensure a human life won't be lost while keeping the public safe.

Thanks to a half-million dollars in federal grant money, the squad will receive a $130,000 remote-controlled robot equipped with multiple video cameras to help disarm suspicious packages, Capt. Williams said.

Since the bomb squad's inception nearly four years ago, specialists have had to physically approach suspicious packages wearing protective suits, then back away because the gear covers only one side of the body.

A robot can't do everything a human can, so the grant money also will help purchase several new protective suits that cover a specialist's back.

At 80 pounds, the suits weigh 30 pounds less than the older ones and are made of reinforced Kevlar.

A helmet with a shatter-proof glass face shield protects the head.

Although the suit provides more protection than the previous one, the 1-inch-thick shield reduces visibility and makes the specialist look "kind of like a goldfish in water," said Deputy Specialist Chad Cheek, a veteran squad member.

The bomb squad has responded to 12 suspicious packages this year, the latest last month when a nervous-looking man placed an artist's case in the parking lot of a Columbia County Wal-Mart and sped off.

The squad doesn't like to reveal details about bomb-removal procedures because many criminals wait, watch and learn when bomb squads respond to the explosive devices they've planted, Capt. Williams said.

This gives them an inside edge on how to improve their bombs, he said.

"They know what not to do the next time," he said.

The squad, which covers 15 counties, also recovers ammunition and assists in potentially dangerous chemical problems, such as cleaning methamphetamine labs.

In addition to training, bomb squad applicants must undergo an FBI background check and pass several physicals, Deputy Specialist Cheek said.

Specialists also must be dedicated and creative, he said.

For Deputy Specialist Cheek and Deputy Bobby Gilbert, working on the bomb squad is a part-time job. Both always have had an interest in this kind of work, they said.

Both are counter snipers with the sheriff's office SWAT team. Deputy Specialist Cheek works in the sheriff's office housing projects, and Deputy Gilbert in patrol.

Deputy Specialist Cheek was once an ammunitions technician in the Marine Corps Reserves, and Deputy Gilbert served in the National Guard.

For Deputy Specialist Cheek, the thrill of working on the bomb squad comes from standing over a potentially explosive device.

"There's always a degree of nervousness," he said. "But you can't have an abnormal fear. If you do, you're not going to make it."

Deputy Gilbert said he learns something new each day.

And whatever happens in his line of work, he is positive about one thing.

"No one can ever take knowledge away from you," he said. "Everyday we train, it's a continuous learning process."

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.


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