COLUMBIA — With a Powerpuff Girls emblem on the back of its truck and a robot named Buttercup, the Mid-Missouri Bomb Squad is certainly equipped with a sense of irony.
The squad has been training, accumulating equipment and preparing to send its members to the FBI's Hazardous Device School, a requirement for FBI accreditation. By becoming FBI-certified, the bomb squad will be federally approved, and will continue to be eligible for grants, Columbia Fire Battalion Chief James Weaver said.
Weaver said he and Columbia police officer Corey Bowden have turned in their school applications since last October and hope to go as soon as this summer. “We are ready to go whenever they tell us,” he said.
The Mid-Missouri bomb squad was established in July 2008 after the Boone County Fire Protection District's bomb squad lost its FBI certification in April of that year. That squad failed to meet the minimum requirements of having two FBI-accredited members, according to previous reporting by the Missourian.
Although the Fire Protection District lost its bomb squad, it kept its equipment because it was purchased with grant money and could be used only under its authority, said Gale Blomenkamp, Fire Protection District division chief.
The new squad includes representatives of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the Columbia Fire Department, the Columbia Police Department and the MU Police Department. Each public safety agency, except for the sheriff’s department, has contributed a member to the bomb squad.
The sheriff’s department chose not to appoint anyone to the hazardous device team because none of its staff meets all of the requirements right now, said Maj. Tom Reddin of the Sheriff’s Department.
“There are a lot of requirements involved, including an extensive and expensive training,” he said.
Each FBI-certified bomb squad needs to have at least two FBI-accredited members. Right now, Sgt. Chris Groves, commander of the bomb squad, is the only FBI-accredited technician in the county.
The other two mid-Missouri bomb technicians, Weaver and Bowden, are on the FBI school’s waiting list.
Both men have already completed a five-week training course in 2005 at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police College in Ottawa, Canada, that is similar to the FBI's accreditation course.
The right person for bomb squad duty is someone with “a healthy curiosity of how things work,” and a willingness to first become a hazardous materials technician, which takes 80 hours of training, Groves said.
Then the hazardous materials technician has to complete a physical exam, pass an FBI background check and attend the bomb technician school in Huntsville, Ala. The current waiting list for the school is about a year, and it takes six weeks to complete the program, Groves said.
The cost for the school, meals and hotel come to about $6,000 and is paid by the sponsoring public safety agency, he said.
Monthly training and re-certification every three years are also required in order to stay current in topics and trends, he said.
In addition to its glistening black truck with Powerpuff Girls and MU Tigers emblems, the squad has also accumulated bomb suits, a remotely controlled robot and two bomb-sniffing dogs, Weaver said.
The several hundred thousand dollars of equipment was bought through grants, but the truck, which cost about $165,000, was purchased by the Columbia Fire Department.
In honor of the truck’s Powerpuff Girls theme, the remotely controlled robot has been named Buttercup.
“Well, Buttercup has got an attitude,” Weaver said.
The squad acquired the robot about five years ago. Since then, Buttercup has helped the bomb squad evaluate possible hazardous devices.
“We can send the robot down range instead of a person,” Weaver said. “It helps to separate us from the device.”
Another part of the team is the two bomb-sniffing canines taken care of by MU police. One of them is a golden lab named Rocky, and the other is a salt-and-pepper German Shepherd puppy named Enzo.
Overall, it's been a quiet year for bomb threats. Last year there were about six or seven, Weaver said. Some of the squad's work involves sweeping Memorial Stadium before football games and assisting the Secret Service during visits by political figures, like President Barack Obama's in October.
“We just try to keep the public safe,” Weaver said.
Whenever the squad members are not busy responding to potential bomb threats, they're in training either on their own or with other bomb squads in the state, he said.
Sometimes, they visit schools, day cares and provide tours of the fire station to children. The children are not only shown the inside of the station, but also the inside of trucks. Every fire truck has a painted cartoon character emblem near the back.
"This builds a bridge for us to connect with the kids," Weaver said. "It's a way for them to associate the truck to the area where they live, to take ownership and connect with the cartoon character."
Hence, the Powerpuff Girls.