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Area's bomb squads are all work, nothing like TV

TAMPA — There's no lone cop racing the clock, clutching a pair of wire cutters and stressing over the red or green wire, when local law enforcement calls on the bomb squad.

That never happens, said Robert F. DePerte, Tampa's police bomb commander.

"The hot dog, the bomb guy, isn't real. On every call there are at least three people," he said. "It's annoying the way they do it on TV."

For an officer to get near anything that might explode or involve hazardous materials, the person must be a FBI-certified bomb technician, a designation that can take more than two years to earn.

Fewer than 30 people in Hills­borough County are certified, said Cpl. Darrel Kandil, bomb commander for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. And spaces on the sheriff's and Tampa police bomb squads are rare.

"You can't get trained as a civilian, and we only take on new people every couple years," De­Perte said.

The Tampa police and Hillsborough County bomb squads serve most of the counties in the Tampa Bay area because an FBI risk analysis found that Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Hernando and Hardee counties could be served best by centralized teams.

Manatee and Citrus counties have their own recently formed squads to serve their regions, Kandil said.

Often the calls involve someone's lost backpack, containing nothing more menacing than dirty socks. But there are other times when the risk is all too real — pipe bombs rigged to explosive timers, old wartime bombs and other lethal hazards.

Two years ago, Kandil was called to a Spring Hill country club after two of five pipe bombs attached to the docks detonated.

"Someone made them out of liter bottles filled with gasoline and makeshift timers," he said. "That was a pretty live call."

The squad was able to find and disarm the remaining three bombs before they went off, but we may never know how.

"It's what we're trained to do," is all Kandil would say.

It's the job of the bomb squad, which doubles a hazardous materials team, to dispose of such items and live munitions found in unexpected places. But how it does so is classified.

"If bad guys look on the Internet and see how we deal with certain situations they can use that to hurt us," Kandil said.

So a shroud of secrecy hangs over the men and women who graduate from the FBI's Hazardous Devices School run by the Army at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

Officer Matt Simons, a night patrol cop in Tampa's District 3, is one of four recent Tampa police graduates of Redstone.

He said the intensive six-week certification course was much less difficult than DePerte's grueling tryouts that happen more than 18 months before you can go to the school.

At tryouts, the hopefuls run with the SWAT team, take a 300-yard walk in an 85-pound bomb suit (usually in 90 degree weather) while carrying two pieces of equipment, and go through some problem-solving skills. That's just the first day.

Simons said the most trying part for him was Day 2, when the dive team made the group tread water for 10 minutes holding an 8-pound weight.

"I don't float very well," he said. "I'm more of a sinker."

Several Tampa bomb squad members are certified to deal with underwater ordnance, De­Perte said, so dive team exercises help commanders learn who would be most apt for those jobs, and also who's physically fit.

"You've got to be in shape," Kandil said. "The bomb suit and the equipment is all so heavy."

Simons said he hasn't worked on any big cases yet, but was called when some fishermen found grenades in the Hills­borough River at Rowlett Park. "After we made sure they weren't going to go off, we took them and disposed of them," he said.

Having a bomb squad doesn't come cheap. Hillsborough County relies on federal government grants to fund the extremely expensive venture, and then saves in salaries by requiring bomb squad members to do more than one job on the force.

"A bomb suit costs $24,000 and lasts about five years," De­Perte said. "There are 10 people on our team, so it probably costs $1 million to keep us running."

The two squads divide up the Tampa Bay regional duties in much the same way they do their responsibilities for law enforcement in Hillsborough County.

"We cover the unincorporated county areas in the region, and Tampa's squad covers the cities," Kandil explained.

It was just another day at work for Kandil, a 19-year veteran, when he walked into the Pinellas County Justice Center on May 14 for one of the hundreds of suspicious white powder calls he's gotten since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His team fielded the call to Clearwater because Tampa's squad was unavailable.

He found a woman sitting there — glued to her seat — with powder all over her lap and on the floor.

"Awww, jeez," he remembered saying. "That poor woman."

Preliminary tests showed that the powder wasn't harmful, Kandil said. But he was thankful that the University of South Florida's Center for Biological Defense, which is only one level below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labs, was nearby.

"Makes the turnaround faster," he said. "That lady was probably worried sick."

Both Hillsborough and Tampa's squad members wear many hats because the departments can't afford full-time teams.

When they're not searching stadiums and inspecting packages, bomb team members are patrol officers, undercover investigators, civil service deputies and even an environmental crimes deputy.

"It's all in this book," said De­Perte, who also works criminal intelligence, as he held up a large binder with each of his 10 team members' schedules. "I have to constantly know who's working when and who's available."

As commander of the Sheriff's Office bomb team, Kandil, a 21-year veteran, said he couldn't think of another job he'd want.

He spent time in the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Reserves before going into law enforcement. The University of Cincinnati grad heard that police were being hired in Florida, so he moved to Tampa, and decided to stay after becoming a deputy and meeting his wife, who worked as a dispatcher. "She provides that stability at home that makes it much easier to go out and do what I do," he said.

When he's not coordinating calls for his 10-member sheriff's team, Kandil is a homeland security supervisor at the port.

"A lot of hazardous materials are stored in the Port of Tampa," he said. "Having … relationships with the people who work here is great for me as bomb commander."

Simons, a University of Florida graduate, joined the Tampa police more than eight years ago.

He saw signs posted in his district about tryouts for the bomb squad and decided to apply because it appealed to his inner problem solver.

"The No. 1 quality a person needs is the ability to absorb information and make a decision under pressure," he said.

DePerte moved from New York City to Tampa in 1980 and was immediately drawn to the team.

"They did a live demonstration at the range, and I asked that day 'How do you get on?' " he said.

Joining requires five years police experience, so the rookie DePerte had to pay his dues and move to Hillsborough County. In 1987, he got his tryout, and in 1989, he went to hazardous devices school at Redstone.

Along the way, DePerte said he met his wife and had two daughters who are now adults.

But the squads are another form of family as they train together with Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearm and Explosives agents and ordnance specialists from MacDill Air Force Base two days a month.

"Sometimes during the try-outs we'll fire up the grill and make hamburgers and hot dogs, as the guys are being tested in their bomb suits," Kandil said.

And he talks to DePerte regularly to coordinate trainings and calls to crime scenes.

DePerte, who is preparing to retire in 2011, said it takes a particular type of person to be a successful bomb technician, and rigorous tryouts help weed out those who can't cut it.

A few months ago, he got a call from a medical facility about a suspicious bag, he said. When the bomb squad arrived, it found the chemical was picric acid, a highly volatile yellow crystalline explosive.

"If that were to get on you, that would not be good," he joked. But he was confident the technicians he sent out would be able to handle anything.

"Our guys and girl have to be able to work as a team and listen to each other and everyone has to do their part," he said. "They are the absolute best."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at rmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

Area's bomb squads are all work, nothing like TV 05/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 10:19pm]

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