Overland Park Bomb Squad technician Jim Dawkins showed off the team’s “bomb suit” before Wednesday’s Kansas University men’s basketball game.
There’s the 15-pound helmet with an air ventilation system and the 80-pound suit lined with Kevlar shields.
But no gloves.
In the rare event that something goes boom, “Your hands are going to be gone,” said Dawkins nonchalantly, explaining that the technicians need their hands free to use tools.
But the task of the squad, which was called to Lawrence twice on the same day recently, is usually not the stuff seen in movies.
“Bomb squads aren’t cowboys,” said Dawkins, citing the 2008 movie “The Hurt Locker,” which featured a rogue — and not terribly cautious — bomb technician played by Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner.
In real life it’s much more methodical, said squad leader Sgt. Russ Stamer. Since the Overland Park team’s start in the 1970s, no one from the squad has been seriously injured on a call.
The seven-member team, all Overland Park police officers, approaches a call step by step.
It often starts with a member of the public reporting a suspicious package. The Overland Park crew is one of seven bomb squads in the Kansas City metro area that can be called by authorities looking for trained explosives experts.
When the team was called by Lawrence police following a report of a suspicious package near the Douglas County Justice Center on Jan. 25, they cleared the area and sent in its $280,000 bomb robot, technically known as an Andro F6B. The team just calls it the robot.
The machine is equipped with cameras, listening devices and a claw that can grasp something as small as a pen, as team member Mark Vargo demonstrates outside of Allen Fieldhouse before the team checks the building, as it regularly does, before games.
Vargo, controlling the robot with a gigantic and complicated-looking joystick, would normally be sitting inside the van with the other members watching on a monitor as the robot checks out the suspicious object.
Relying on the experience of the technicians, all of whom spent six weeks training in Huntsville, Ala., learning all about explosives, they make a collective decision.
“They’ll all sit down, and they’ll all have their own opinions about it,” Stamer said. “And they’ll come up with the safest way to handle it.”
Sometimes that decision is to move the object to another area and detonate it if they suspect it’s an explosive.
When the team was in Lawrence, members scoped out South Park, preselecting it as a detonation spot.
Fortunately, the package by the courthouse was not an explosive, and they sent in a member in a bomb suit to handle the package after the robot cleared it.
About half the calls the squad responds to turn up nothing dangerous, Stamer said. For instance, in 2011 only 13 of the 29 calls contained some form of dangerous element, whether it be a small pipe bomb or hazardous materials.
Still, not knowing what you could find provides an adrenaline rush.
Stamer said he’s driven by “the excitement. You never know what you’re going to find.”
Ask the other members and they cite other motivations for being on the bomb squad, such as the camaraderie among the team and the chance to help out. The team responds and provides its services, which also includes education and public outreach, free of charge to local police departments, as the program is funded through the FBI.
But with the slight possibility that a mistake could be made, and something could blow up at any time, Dawkins gives a somewhat surprising reason why he enjoys the bomb squad.
“I think you have a whole lot more control here than you do in the street,” said Dawkins, an 11-year bomb squad veteran.
It’s not really dangerous, “if you know what you’re doing,” he said. Plus, “you get better stories out of it.”