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Fire District gives up its bomb squad

The Boone County Fire Protection District voted 3-2 Wednesday to get rid of its bomb squad.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008 | 10:39 p.m. CDT; updated 9:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA ­­— The Boone County Fire Protection District has given up its bomb squad. In a split decision Wednesday night, the board voted not to attempt the process of ending the FBI’s suspension, which began April 9 because the bomb squad did not meet the FBI’s minimum requirements.

Board members John Gordon, Shelly Dometrorch and Phyllis Fugit voted in favor of the motion, and John Williamson and David Griggs voted in opposition.

The cause of the bomb squad’s suspension lay in the fact that to obtain FBI certification, firefighters have to be law enforcement certified and be full-time, salaried employees, not volunteers, a requirement that the Fire Protection District did not meet.

Recertification would require hiring a full-time employee to act as bomb squad commander, a cost estimated at about $55,000 for a yearly salary and an additional $19,000 for benefits and other expenses.

Gordon expressed concern about the financial future of the district, specifically “how the City Council wants to renegotiate the territorial agreement.”

“If we don’t get that done, it would make a huge impact on our future,” Gordon said.

“I’ve been involved in this district since this board existed and actually before this board existed, and I’ve never known the fire district to quit on anything it started,” Williamson said.

Griggs voted against the motion as it stood because he wanted to ensure that the fire district had the opportunity to be involved in any future FBI-certified bomb squad in the community.

Fire Chief Steve Paulsell was instructed by Gordon to call FBI agent John Tucker on Thursday morning to notify him that the fire district will no longer maintain its sponsoring status. The FBI will now decide who will become the sponsoring agency in central Missouri.

The problem is that two of the fire district’s four certified bomb squad members are volunteers; one of the two qualified members has since left the district.

That leaves the district with what Gordon estimated as several hundred thousand dollars worth of bomb-detecting and defusing equipment and no one certified to use it. The equipment was purchased with FBI and Homeland Security funds.

The Columbia Fire Department has a bomb squad, though it’s not FBI-certified. That leaves the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s certified squad to handle all central Missouri calls.

A busy year for the fire district’s bomb squad is about 10 calls. Since the squad lost its certification, there have been two calls for its services. Fire board member Shelly Dometrorch said that the handling of an incident on April 22, in which a briefcase was left near fuel pumps at the Midway Truck Plaza, illustrates why the bomb squad situation needs resolution.

In that incident, Randy Trierweiler, manager of fuel operations at the truck stop, said he was alerted that a briefcase had been left by the diesel gas pumps behind a trash can.

“I nearly just picked it up and opened it, but it was just suspicious enough to call the Sheriff’s Department,” Trierweiler said. “You gotta remember two months ago gas prices were going through the roof. It crossed my mind, ‘Is there some nut who is mad at big oil, is someone crazy enough to put a bomb in a briefcase?’”

According to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department offense report, Deputy Philip Smith responded at 5:30 p.m. to assist with the incident. Trierweiler said when the Sheriff’s Department arrived, they felt it was suspicious enough to call the fire district.

Trierweiler said the fire district told him to turn off the pumps, and then firefighters cordoned off the island. Everyone was told there could be no cell phone use, and the Sheriff’s Department had to maintain radio silence.

Officer Clayton Henke from the MU Police Department arrived with a bomb-sniffing dog.

“It took about 20 minutes for the dog to get here,” Trierweiler said. “It walked around the briefcase and was not interested in the case at all. At that point we all stood down a little bit.”

The incident report states, “Members of the Boone County Fire Protection District approached the briefcase and tied a rope to it. They drug the briefcase across the parking lot. Nothing was located inside the case.”

“Fire Chief Steve Paulsell personally tied a string to the briefcase and pulled it across the parking lot,” Dometrorch recalled from Paulsell’s comments in a closed board meeting on April 29.

“He tried to explain how he handled it in a proper manner,” Dometrorch said. “He said it had set there for a long time, and his concern was that the pumps had to be closed down and the proprietor was losing money while they were dealing with the situation. This is a good example of why we need the bomb squad situation resolved. Tying a string around it and pulling it across the parking lot is not how I imagine a certified squad would have handled it. And there was a lot of confusion about who needed to be called in the first place.”

“The only way it was a bad procedure is when something goes wrong; in this case nothing went wrong,” Gordon said. “We didn’t have the squad so they had to improvise.”

“Could it be handled in a different way? Absolutely,” Gordon said. “But it was a non-incident. The chief used his experience and thoughtfulness to do what he thought was right.”

Columbia Fire Battalion Chief James Weaver, who is on the city’s bomb squad, said he didn’t want to directly address the Midway incident, with which he was familiar.

“Our standard operating procedure is to work as remotely as possible while gathering information and investigating the incident,” Weaver said.

Weaver went on to describe a process that includes the possible use of x-rays, a bomb-sniffing dog and a remotely controlled robot.

The fire district had difficulties meeting the FBI’s formal requirements two years after the squad was certified Nov. 1, 2002. The two problems that led to the suspension of its certification were that a minimum of two people must be accredited through the Hazardous Device School, and the commander must be a full-time paid member of the fire district. The fire district has not met the latter requirement since Ken Hines, the bomb squad commander, left for active duty in the Coast Guard in November 2004. Hines has not returned.

“We haven’t been able to properly respond to a suspicious device under the FBI’s regulations since Hines left in 2004,” Dometrorch said.

“We anticipated Ken Hines to return. The FBI was aware he was on active duty,” Gordon said. “For a period of time we felt that two volunteers were appropriate because they had attended the school and were qualified. We found out in December those two volunteers did not meet all of the requirements. As we looked in more detail of replacing a commander, we realized we didn’t have a person who could meet those requirements.”

Only Chris Groves from MU police, who serves on the fire district’s bomb squad through a memorandum of agreement, remains accredited. Therein lies one of the possible solutions: designating MU Police as the sponsoring agency for the squad. They already have a bomb-sniffing dog, an FBI-certified tech and space to house equipment and the training explosives.

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday, the fire district’s Web site continued to maintain that the fire district “operates one of two FBI certified bomb squads in Central Missouri.”

Missourian reporter Paul Weber contributed to this report.


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