Sandia LabNews

Big wigs, big blasts initiate Operation Riverside

Sandia, City of Riverside Police Department host fourth bomb squad training conference

In an abandoned city land fill, the odor of gunpowder wafted past a crowd of 150 people, a few in gray corporate suits, but most wearing black caps and T-shirts identifying them as members of police departments ranging from Los Angeles to New York.

As debris from the final blast clinked to the ground, the cops and VIPs removed their earplugs. Destruction was everywhere: a splintered desk here, a mangled file cabinet there, a car ablaze, thick black smoke rising into the hazy southern California sky.

A TV crew from CNN recorded the scene. It looked like the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

Except this time, it was the good guys causing the destruction.

The explosives demo Aug. 10 was part of a kickoff ceremony for Operation Riverside, a nine-day training conference for members of the worlds top bomb squads. Sandia and the City of Riverside, Calif., Police Department hosted the event.

The unique conference focuses on the science and methodology of bomb disablement, with emphasis on technologies that keep bomb techs out of harms 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 were invited to participate, says Chris Cherry of Explosives Applications Dept. 15322, the events organizer.

Sandia hosted its first bomb squad training conference, called Operation Albuquerque, in 1994 after Chris recognized the need to put emerging bomb-disablement technologies into the arsenals of the nations busiest bomb squads. The first event received wide acclaim from its participants. The following two conferences also were held in Albuquerque and included bomb techs from around the world. This is the first time the conference has been held in Riverside.

Giving bomb squads new tools

To stay ahead of the increasingly sophisticated antitamper and explosives devices being encountered in the world today, Chris and his team develop some of the worlds most technically advanced render-safe technologies, along with reconnaissance technologies to help categorize complex, terrorist-type bombs and assess their threats remotely.

Since 1992, Sandia has developed and licensed a family of bomb disablers. Sandias Percussion Actuated Nonelectric Disrupter, for example, has become the primary tool used by bomb squads nationwide to disable conventional, handmade-type bombs remotely. 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 explosively disrupt a bombs internal gadgetry so quickly that it never has a chance to detonate.

Attending this years conference were more than 100 specialists representing the bomb squads of several large US cities; various state police departments; federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Secret Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; all branches of the US armed forces; and antiterrorist and law enforcement agencies from the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and other countries. Every US government agency involved in law enforcement and antiterrorism was there, says Chris. The National Institute of Justice and the US Navys Office of Special Technology sponsored the event, with logistical support from the City of Riverside, the FBIs Bomb Data Center, and the FBI/US Army Hazardous Devices School.

Sandia’s ‘mock terrorists’ made the bombs

During Operation Riverside, the PAN Disrupter and a variety of other Sandia disablers with cryptic names like the Black Box and Magic Cube were deployed in realistic bomb-disablement scenarios by small teams of bomb tech players as they practiced 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.

"Most of these arent your run-of-the-mill pipe bombs," says Chris. "The bomb techs who come here are concerned about more complex devices. Our goal is to give them the training theyll need to deal with the kinds of terrorist-type devices we think theyll encounter in the next 10 to 20 years."

The bomb facsimiles ranging from briefcase bombs, to large vehicle bombs like the one used in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, to sophisticated chem-bio devices were created by a Dept. 15322 team led by Rod Owenby. These mock terrorists combined their creativity with their technical knowledge of explosives to build bombs designed to challenge the bomb tech players, says Rod.

The conference began with presentations by several VIPs, including David Boyd, Director, Office of Science & Technology, National Institute of Justice; Jeff David, Manager, Office of Special Technology, US Navy; Captain Dan Renwick, Commanding Officer, US Naval Explosives Ordnance Disposal Technology Division; Special Agent Steve Veyera, Unit Chief, FBI Bomb Data Center; and Sandia President C. Paul Robinson.

Greater demands on bomb squads

David Boyd praised the bomb squads for their attendance. "You are the guys who are going to handle all of the arsons and all of the bombings, so we look to you to provide the answers," he said. "If you need something, we can help find the funding."

To the audience dominated by bomb squad members, Paul Robinson recalled Chris Cherrys early bomb disablement work, including his time with the elite Nuclear Emergency Search Team, where Chris began thinking about what do you do the first time you encounter an improvised nuclear device?

He noted that countries lacking an ability to launch long-range missiles view terrorist bombings as their best alternative to a precision-strike capability and may seek to use that alternative against the United States.

"Unfortunately, the way the world is going," said Paul, "we’re going to need a lot more of this technology in the future, and it’s going to put greater demands on you."

City of Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll noted the work of the Sandia team in creating the scenarios and bomb facsimiles for the event. "Your ‘terrorists’ worked night and day and weekends for two or three months to make sure these bomb techs would deal with the types of advanced threats that are emerging and those that are now within the realm of possibility."

Following the speeches were two days of classroom instruction and technical presentations on advanced disablement strategies, vehicle bombs, and other terrorist-type threats, followed by four days of scenario-playing. After each round of scenarios, observers from Sandia and the Hazardous Devices School evaluated the teams tactical approaches.

" I got a lot of positive feedback from the bomb techs," says Chris. "They were saying things like ‘there is nothing like it in the world,’ and ‘it dwarfed anthing weve ever done.’ It was the most successful conference yet."

He added that he is particularly grateful for the extreme support of the Riverside PD and of Rod Owenby, Jerry Mercer, and Mike Olbin (all 15322) for helping make the conference a success.