When there is a bomb threat, these men and women come to the rescue. You may have seen them portrayed in movies and cop shows, but bomb technicians and investigators actually live that drama you only watch on TV. And behind the scenes, scientific techniques are used to get to the bottom of an incident. Barney T. Villa has served on the Los Angeles County Arson Explosives Detail (AED) for 18 years. Now, also the International Director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, Villa continues to be motivated by the noble challenge of his profession—protecting lives and communities. Here, Villa gives us a peek into what makes his job “tick.”
What does a bomb investigator do?
As bomb technicians and investigators for the LA County AED, we not only render an improvised explosive device (bomb) safe, we investigate the crime to apprehend the person responsible. Generally, our unit handles anywhere from 300 to 600 bomb investigations per year. When not responding to bomb calls, we conduct arson investigations to find the cause and origin of fires. In this line of work, safety measures, such as robots, x-ray machines, explosive detecting K-9s, and teamwork, are essential. Two or more bomb technicians respond to a scene; one will generally wear a 32 kg bomb suit while the other assists with equipment preparation. The number one rule is to always respect the person that you are working with and the device you are working on. Remaining in good physical shape and having a clear mind is paramount to our survival.
How is scientific thinking involved?
The process of investigation begins when we respond to a call. If an explosion or fire has occurred, the scene is photographed, witnesses are interviewed, and evidence is collected. This evidence (e.g., glass, metal fragments, charred wood, accelerant residue, and latent fingerprints) is documented, photographed, and subjected to hair and fiber exams; DNA, fingerprint, and materials analysis; and explosive residue and accelerant examinations. Examiners frequently conduct ex-plosive tests to determine the overall design and function of devices—the design characteristics, materials, and details of the bomb’s construction are a bomber’s signature for a particular incident and aid in identifying a bomber. Records of convicted and suspect bombers and arsonists are maintained to determine links between incidents. The ability to apply logic and reasoning to identify possible solutions to an investigation, find relationships among seemingly unrelated events, and analyze data and information are very useful qualities in this field.
What background is needed?
Our team receives extensive training and basic information at the Hazardous Device School in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The main requirement in our unit is to have detective bureau experience, which prepares individuals with skills needed in bomb investigation such as critical thinking, gathering evidence, questioning witnesses, judgment and decision making, and inductive reasoning. Education varies with each individual investigator. A former military person with Explosive Ordnance Disposal expertise is a highly valuable candidate, but they must first become a police officer. My experience consists of 15 years as a deputy sheriff before joining the bomb squad, serving with the United States Marine Corps, obtaining an associate in arts degree, and more recently, completing an occupational studies program. It is important for any high school student considering a job in law enforcement to stay out of jail and trouble with peers involved in illegal activities. For more information about careers in this field, students should visit the Exploring website (www.learning-for-life.org/exploring/lawenforcement).
What is your biggest accomplishment?
I work with the very best in our field and to have survived all these years without injury is a major accomplishment. Our unit also prepared an inspirational video presentation titled Youth and Explosives—a message from a 19-year-old boy who almost killed himself while experimenting with explosives. The peer-to-peer message in the video is a very effective medium to communicate the danger of explosives.