Bomb squad member has no room for error

October 16, 2000

Bomb squad member has no room for error


For James Woods everyday on the job has the potential to be the Fourth of July.


As a technician for the Maryland State Fire Marshal's bomb squad, its Woods' job to dispose of explosives anywhere the state.

He also conducts investigations and speaks to the public about the potential dangers of explosives.

"In this game you gotta stay sharp - one time you're not sharp will be the last time," said Woods, 48, of Hagerstown.

In September Woods became a full-time member of the Maryland State Fire Marshal's bomb squad based in Linthicum, Md. Previously he was a fire investigator and part-time bomb technician at the fire marshal's Western Regional Office in Hagerstown.


Woods, who is part of a 10-person bomb squad team, is summoned whenever a suspected explosive is found.

On Wednesday, Woods went to South Hagerstown High School after school officials noticed a suspicious package left outside the building.

At the scene, Woods' put on an 85-pound bomb suit which is designed to protect him from the effects of an explosion, he said.

"It just ensures that you have a open casket funeral," he joked.

Using a portable x-ray machine he took a series of pictures of the package and scrutinized the negatives before determining the box contained literature.

When explosives such as homemade bombs or old hand grenades are found, Woods evaluates the components to decide the best way to make them inert.

"Part of the challenge is being able to outsmart them," said Woods who served in the U.S. Army and Air Force.

Sometimes Woods can rely on the bomb squad's radio-controlled robot to view or move an explosive but other times he must fight fire with fire.

"Sometimes you have to build a bomb to take out a bomb," he said.

Woods said live grenades thought to be safe are commonly found and require him to build a bomb and use it to blow up the grenade.

About a year ago, Woods was needed when a live military rocket was found in a Boonsboro home.

As military explosives age they become more volatile so he had to take special care in removing the explosive and detonating it in a safe area, said Woods.

"Everybody has to take it real serious. There's no cowboys in this business," he said.

He said he has never had any close calls.

"If you don't have your game face on you could make a mistake that's extremely costly. And I love going home to my wife," said Woods.

One of the most common types of homemade bombs he encounters is the pipe bomb, he said.

Supplies for pipe bombs are easy to come by and they are less complicated to make than other devices, he said.

"They can be terribly destructive," said Woods who works 12- to 14-hour days and is on call around the clock.

Woods joined the Office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal in 1989 after serving with the United States Secret Service and Military Police.

He graduated from Western Maryland Police Training Academy and Hazardous Device Schools of the FBI and the Department of Defense.

His training in dealing with clandestine drug labs has made him an invaluable part of law enforcement for the state.

Since the chemical processes to make drugs can be highly explosive, Woods accompanies authorities in serving search warrants.

He is also on-hand to disarm booby-traps that can be found in fields where marijuana has been planted.

He serves as an adjunct instructor for the Western Maryland and Frederick City Police Training academies.

While working for the Western Regional office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal, Woods investigated fires and went on explosives emergencies as they arose.

Woods said he will miss doing fire investigations but decided explosives work is something he enjoys more.

"He was an aggressive investigator and did a fine job," said Charles Cronauer, former Deputy Chief Fire Marshal for the Western Region.

Since January, Woods said he has been involved in 100 bomb investigations.

On average the bomb squad responds to 500 explosives calls a year, which makes Maryland the ninth busiest state in respect to explosives calls in the U.S., he said.

Despite the unavoidable danger of the job, Woods said he isn't scared when encountering explosive emergencies.

"I get nervous prior to putting on the suit. Then I become calm because I know it's time to go to work and I can't afford to be nervous," he said.

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