Q&A: Bomb squad commanders play mediator in stressful job

On Friday, U. of I. Police Lt. Steve Trame will hand over command of the local bomb squad to Sgt. Aaron Landers.

The unique squad is one of only 12 in Illinois and consists of three bomb technicians from U. of I. Police and three from Champaign Police. It serves a 13-county region in east-central Illinois, and all the techs are deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service so they can respond to calls anywhere in the country. It is part of a nationwide network of bomb squads, which are heavily funded by the federal government.

Lt. Trame is retiring in July after 28 years with U. of I. Police, and he’s turning over the reins of the bomb squad 25 years after joining it. As it turns out, he and Sgt. Landers have experienced some heart-stopping moments as bomb techs. –

How many callouts do you think you’ve had?

Lt. Trame: It’s hard to say. We go out on 20-plus per year, so after 25 years it certainly looks like a much larger number than I could ever remember.

Any particularly memorable incidents?

Lt. Trame: In May 1998, there was a series of pipe bomb explosions at churches in Danville. They ended when the bomber committed suicide with another pipe bomb in his garage. That was a gruesome scene that took several days to render safe because he had so many bomb making materials in the garage. There was a really heart-stopping moment when one of the bomb techs looked up into a tree near where we were working and saw a pipe bomb strapped to a tree branch like a booby trap. Everything slowed way down from that point forward. It took two bomb squads and several ATF agents to handle that scene.

Sgt. Landers: I think the most memorable ones are often your first. They have such an impact on you, especially if it is a serious one. Mine came only a few weeks after completing hazardous devices school. It was a pipe bomb in a shed in Urbana. All I was told was that it was in the shed, and I had to get it out. So I put the bomb suit on for the first time for real and walked into the shed. It was late in the evening, and it was very dark. As I looked around I saw it on a shelf, face level with the end cap pointing right at my nose. This is the same as looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, except the projectile is about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. It was very unnerving to see something like that on your first call out. I was sweating and breathing very fast. It was something I will never forget.

Are you relieved to be shedding this duty, or do you think you’ll miss it?

Lt. Trame: Relieved? No way. I will miss it every day. I’m sure it adds more stress to my life and my family than I now imagine, so eventually I will appreciate it when that’s all gone. But for now, I will really miss being involved with everything that goes on in the day to day EOD world. It’s a pretty exclusive field, and for 25 years it was a major part of my life. So, you don’t easily walk away from something like that.

The bomb squad commander has a lot of responsibility. It takes a lot of coordination, training, budgeting, planning, record keeping, delegation and mediation to keep the team moving forward and always improving. As with any unit, there will always be periodic personnel issues, personality conflicts or attitude adjustments that you have to address or mitigate. But in the end, we are all pretty close and we constantly give each other a good-natured hard time. It keeps the job fun and interesting, and everyone always pulls more than their own weight.

Sgt. Landers, why do you want to be the next commander?

Sgt. Landers: I wish I had a choice about being the next commander … just kidding. I’ve had the chance to work with some very good commanders in my time and want my chance to keep the tradition going. They are very big shoes to fill and I hope that I can make this team even better. A bomb squad commander is a unique position in that he or she is less of a dictator and more of a moderator and tie breaker. The officers on the team are very well trained and selected for their abilities to work under tremendous amounts of stress. Each member is a professional who has all the tools necessary to solve most of the situations they find themselves in. The commander just makes sure it all gets done with minimal distractions and arguments.

What are some of the skills necessary to be a bomb tech?

Lt. Trame: All bomb techs tend to have very confident, type-A, aggressive personalities. Most people outside our field would find it strange that we will play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to wear the suit first and go down range on a pipe bomb. The reality is that no one wants to be second because you have to wear a sweaty bomb suit. You also have to be willing to accept some risk, but you never take chances. You never know what will happen when you fire a disrupter or a counter charge, but you ultimately have to have the confidence in your training, tools and judgement to be willing to accept the responsibility to make a difficult decision.

Sgt. Landers: Bomb techs need to have a critical eye for the small details. It is not all fast paced and go, go, go, like it was when I was on the SWAT team. It is often slow, thoughtful, careful work. One also needs to think creatively, as many bombers are thinking outside the box when making their devices, and especially when it is your fellow bomb techs making devices for training. You have to put the risks out of your mind and concentrate on the task at hand. If someone is more worried about the fact they are walking up to a possible car or truck bomb than doing what needs to be done, they are not going to be very effective.

Besides addressing suspicious packages, what else does the bomb squad do?

Lt. Trame: We do quite a few public safety demonstrations throughout the year for various organizations. We also collect and destroy a lot of fireworks. More bomb techs have been killed or injured disposing of fireworks than bombs in the U.S. We also get a lot of calls for old military ordnance. We have very good working relationships with nearby military EOD units, and we get a lot of support from them.

Some people think the police are overly cautious in addressing suspicious packages. Why do the police and the bomb squad operate the way they do?

Lt. Trame: If you read some of the comments in the online newspaper articles after we disrupt someone’s lunch bag or school backpack, we get a lot of flak and negative comments. However, no one remembers back in December 1997 when Brian Plawer was killed outside the Oakwood Methodist Church, 30 miles east of Urbana. He moved a cooler that had been left on the sidewalk. It contained an explosive device that had been built by the bomber who committed suicide the following May in Danville. As I said earlier, we have to assume some risks but we don’t take chances. The first time we don’t follow protocol and something bad happens, the commander will be held accountable for letting someone get hurt when we could have been using all the valuable training and equipment that we have. We carefully assess every situation and make decisions based on training and experience, not emotion and expedience.

Sgt. Landers: The bomb squad is very overly cautious, and for good reason. If the bomber wanted to hurt lots of people, as some often do, it would do them no good to put out something that is obviously a bomb. The reason the Boston Marathon bombers were able to kill and maim was because they hid their devices in large backpacks in the middle of a crowd. So if there is something that looks even the slightest bit suspicious, law enforcement treats it like a bad thing. You only get to be wrong once in this field.

Why does our community need a bomb squad?

Sgt. Landers: Many bomb squads were created in or around college towns because of the unrest in the 1960s and 1970s when there were bombings for political reasons. Our bomb squad has been around since the early 1970s and now is an important part of the country’s bomb squad network.  Our squad covers a large area that is not covered by other teams in the state. We play our part to keep not only our community safe, but also may others in our region.