Working on the bomb squad

Morris works from the bomb squad's van using a remote control panel to operate 'Big Al.' Procedures used to examine and neutralize a suspicious package are called RSPs, or render safe procedures, Morris said.

David MacDougall

Sheriff's Sgt. Patrick Morris knows his job is dangerous and exciting, but that's not what keeps him coming to work every day.

"People in the 'bomb world' are driven to win," Morris said. By "bomb world," he means the tight-knit community of law enforcement officers who routinely walk toward danger while everyone else is running away.

Morris is one them: He commands the Charleston County Sheriff's Office bomb squad.

"There are almost a million police officers in the country," Morris said. "But there are only 2,700 bomb techs."

Bomb technicians are driven to win the battle of wits with the bomber and the explosive device, he said.

Becoming a bomb tech

Morris, who is 40 and single, has been in law enforcement for 17 years. He grew up all over the country. His father was with the U.S. Marshals Service and the family spent some time in South Carolina.

Morris graduated from Long Beach State College in California, and his first job out of college was as a patrol officer with the North Charleston Police Department. In 1999, he joined the bomb squad there. Nine years ago, he moved to the Sheriff's Office to join what is officially known as the Metro Explosives Response Team.

The squad comprises 10 members, two of whom are full time. Eight other deputies have collateral duties with the sheriff's office, such as patrol, narcotics, administration and court security, Morris said. The squad is authorized for three full-time slots, and another deputy is in the process of transferring, Morris said.

They answer calls all over the state, not just in Charleston County. They work with the State Law Enforcement Division, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Every bomb tech in the country eventually attends the FBI's Hazardous Devices School," Morris said. The school, which is in Alabama, has a long waiting list. Not every bomb technician in the squad has taken the class yet, he said.

How they do it

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office bomb squad handled 147 calls in 2009, Morris said.

In a typical year, about one-third of the calls are live calls, meaning there is a cannonball, a grenade or an improvised explosive device -- an IED. The squad gets a live call about once a week. The squad also is responsible for all hazardous materials calls, including methamphetamine labs.

Another third of the calls are for pro-active tasks, such as sweeping a stadium or area for explosives before a visit from a high-ranking official.

The remaining calls are for suspicious packages, Morris said. Someone will leave a package or briefcase or toolbox somewhere.

In these situations, the squad will take steps to examine the package, try to determine what it is and render it safe, Morris said.

Folks often think a bomb squad simply will take a suspicious package and blow it up.

"We try very hard not to blow anything up," he said. Procedures used to examine and neutralize a suspicious package are called RSPs, or render safe procedures, Morris said.

They'll use a mechanized robot, nicknamed "Big Al," to examine the package with a camera, manipulate and move it. Sometimes technicians will use a rifle-like device mounted on the robot to fire a water charge or shotgun pellets toward the device, if that is thought to be the best way of rendering it safe, Morris said.

'It's not like TV'

Of all the misconceptions people have about bomb squads, most come from television and movies in which a bomb technician will walk up to a fellow with explosives strapped to his chest and say over the wire to his colleague, "Which wire should I cut, the red one or the green one?"

For one thing, bomb technicians don't take chances like that.

"It's not like TV. You have to trust the people you work with," he said. "We are risk takers, not chance takers."

Nothing is left to chance. Everyone on the team is highly skilled and trained. They continually drill and practice, he said.

And bomb technicians won't get close to a device to render it safe unless a person's life is in danger, Morris said.

"We almost always try to work remotely," he said.

When they do have to get up close and personal, they don a protective bomb suit that weighs about 85 pounds.

Competition among deputies to get into the squad is intense. Tryouts take a full day and involve a series of strenuous maneuvers while wearing a bomb suit. The maneuvers test one's ability to think quickly under pressure and while wearing the heavy gear, Morris said.

The last time the squad had tryouts, there were nine candidates, but only three people made it, Morris said.