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Bomb squad member can't let his guard down

June 25, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

An antitank weapon hangs around a cardboard cutout of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in Ted Meminger's office at the Frederick (Md.) Municipal Airport.

The weapon, taken from a convicted child molester, stands out as a reminder of what he does. Meminger disarms bombs.

He did not grow up with an intense desire to handle explosives. In fact, he was a reluctant convert to the bomb squad.

Meminger said that 11 years ago, when he wanted to join the state fire marshal's hazardous materials team, you couldn't do so without also joining the bomb squad.

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So Meminger took the plunge.

About a year later, the office eliminated its HAZMAT function, and he was left with bomb squad duties.

There are more than 12 highly trained bomb specialists serving in five regions in the state fire marshal's office, according to spokesman W. Faron Taylor. Last year, they responded to 430 calls throughout the state - everything from suspicious packages to bomb threats to recovered explosives.

The total number of calls was down from 493 in 1995, but Taylor said it is impossible to infer any kind of trend.

"I really wouldn't attempt to draw any conclusions," he said. "It's too short of a period and there's so many different categories. And some are so unrelated."

Bomb incidents make up about 40 percent of those calls. Last year, 182 bomb-related calls came in, Taylor said.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Post Office on Franklin Street in Hagerstown was closed for several hours after a suspect package was found.

The package turned out to be harmless. Most do. Of the 66 suspicious packages in 1996 in Maryland, only one exploded.

"It doesn't sound like a lot," Taylor said. "But one out of 66, two out of 78 - I wouldn't want to take those odds."

Officials do not fool around with bombs. All bomb specialists must take an intensive six-week course in Alabama and then receive regular training updates throughout the year.

Meminger, of Frederick County, responds to incidents from Washington County to Carroll County. He said the specialists measure their blood pressure, pulse and take an EKG before each call. If they do not fall within acceptable limits, they do not even put on the protective suit.

Meminger said such precautions - and the knowledge of what a bomb blast can do - make it tough to get too blase.

"Do I ever let my guard down? No," he said.

If Meminger, 39, seems tight-lipped about the bomb squad's procedures, he said it is because officials are weary of giving would-be bomb-makers a peek into their operations.

Bomb squad officials provide only vague descriptions of their tools and methods.

Sitting in his office Wednesday, Meminger sipped Gatorade - a preemptive strike against the heat. He said he never knows when he might be called to spend hours hovering over a package in 90-degree heat.

Making matters worse is the 70-pound Kevlar suit, designed to provide protection. How much? Meminger said the suits can be helpful, but not indestructible.

"Sometimes, it just means the difference between an open-casket and a closed-casket funeral," he said.

Meminger reeled off a list of other tools:

  • A remote-control robot that can carry bombs a safe distance away or tear packages apart.
  • "Disrupter" devices that can disarm explosive devices. Meminger said they shoot water or air through packages.


Budget constraints

Like other state agencies, the state fire marshal's office has had to tighten its belt. For the bomb squad, Meminger said that has meant improvising.

Much of the equipment, for instance, is used.

"We can't go out and buy things," he said. "We have to procure them when they become surplus. We get the hand-me-downs."

One of the robots he uses, for instance, was obtained from NATO forces in Europe. Meminger said it malfunctioned at the post office two weeks ago.

There are other problems associated with using used equipment. The writing on the robot - and the manual - is in German. Meminger said bomb specialists had to learn how to use it by trial and error.

In addition, Meminger said recent changes in state regulations require more than one specialist to respond to each incident - placing a further strain on resources.

"My wife reminds me every week how much she hates my job," he said.

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