City bomb squad gets more bucks for the bang

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March 15, 2004 // UPDATED 9:50 am - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Downtown-based police unit has struggled with poor equipment despite defusing life-or-death situations statewide

When the Minneapolis Bomb Squad goes on an emergency call around the state -- from Austin to Rosseau -- its vehicle tops out at about 60 mph...on a flat road.

Problem is, the 16-year-old truck is lugging a five-ton trailer carrying the Total Containment Vessel (TCV), a large metal sphere used to safely transport unexploded explosives, said Sgt. Dan Wulff, Bomb Squad commander.

"When we come out of Duluth, we are doing 15-20 mph going up the hill," Wulff said. "That becomes somewhat hazardous, too. Cars are trying to get around you. It doesn't look good when you are a police vehicle obstructing traffic, and it says 'Bomb Squad' on the back."

The Downtown-based Bomb Squad landed a $350,000 state emergency preparedness grant to buy a new truck. Staff is still working on the specifications, but it will carry more bomb technicians, more equipment -- and it will go faster.

It is a sign of the times that while the city is closing swimming beaches, preparing to close schools and making other difficult cuts, the state and federal government have antiterrorism money. It is no secret that the Target Center, Metrodome, the Mall of America and other large venues are considered potential terrorist targets.

Minneapolis has one of only four bomb squads in the state, Wulff said. St. Paul, Bloomington and Crow Wing County/Brainerd have the others.

'Are you crazy?'

Police Department spokesperson Officer Ron Reier said Wulff lobbied hard for the new truck grant.

Some might be hard-pressed to imagine it, but work for the Bomb Squad work fulfills a dream for Wulff. He joined the Army hoping to working on explosive ordinance disposal and ended up in air defense artillery. He joined the city police in 1991 and said he feels lucky to lead the Bomb Squad.

"I thought everyone wanted to do it -- until I talked to other cops," he said. "They all look at you and go, 'Are you crazy?'"

The Minneapolis Bomb Squad has nine team members, three permanently assigned and six part-timers. It responded to more than 160 calls last year, a relatively low annual total.

Many calls turn out to be false alarms. For instance, the Bomb Squad responded to a call near the Aquatennial parade route. What at first appeared to be dynamite turned out to be fireworks, Wulff said.

The Bomb Squad travels statewide, and the state reimburses Minneapolis for out-of-city calls, he said. For instance, it responded to a pipe bomb at a Coon Rapids school. It also responds to calls from rural areas when someone comes across dynamite an old farmer stored or a World War II-vintage explosive, a once-treasured souvenir.

"When it [dynamite] sits for years, it becomes so unstable that even walking up and tapping it with your finger will cause it to detonate," Wulff said.

The current Bomb Squad truck has several shortcomings in addition to a lack of power, he said. It is not big enough to carry a robot, spare oxygen tanks, and X-ray and other equipment.

"Right now, we have stuff in a storage closet that we can't get to a scene, unless we make multiple trips, because our vehicle isn't large enough," he said.

The robot is a critical piece of equipment. It can carry a camera to an explosive device and allow bomb technicians to study it at a safe distance, Wulff said. It has a claw to extract items from under a car. If needed, the robot could even fire a gun at an explosive device in an attempt to disarm a detonating mechanism.

If the Bomb Squad wants to bring the robot, it means bringing a second van -- and that detracts from tactical discussions that could take place during the drive.

"Unfortunately, we have responded to St. Cloud or further on a bomb call, only to find out we should have our robot," Wulff said. "Then we will put on the bomb suit and do what we need to do."

The new truck will have a better computer and communications workspace, he said.

In Minneapolis, the Bomb Squad has responded to the meth lab at Lake and Lyndale, Wolff said. It responded to a booby-trapped 3rd Precinct apartment. (The tenant thought aliens were out to get him and had set several traps, including a rifle set to shoot, at gut height, anyone who came through the door)

The Bomb Squad is also attached to the Secret Service detail and was on site during Vice President Dick Cheney's recent visit, Wulff said.