McDo … n’t Touch That!

ASHVILLE – A plastic cylinder lays at Ronald McDonald’s feet. A large metal claw inches tentatively toward the suspicious object before its two metal fingers gently clamp down and pick it up. Wheeling back, the machine races away to safely dispose of the bomb.

The Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office Hazardous Device Unit, also known as the bomb squad, practiced bomb removal techniques at the Children’s Safety Education Village in Ashville on Thursday.

According to Trevor Butts, Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office sergeant and bomb squad commander, the bomb squad covers Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegheny counties. It receives an average of 15 calls a year – although this year it already responded to 20 calls.

The bomb squad handles calls dealing with suspicious packages and items, recovery and disposal of military ordnance, recovery and disposal of fireworks and ammunition, and post-blast investigations. Butts said most of the calls the team received this year were in Chautauqua County and dealt with suspicious packages and old military ordnances.

“We had Civil War (military ordnance), War World I, War World II – a lot of World War II stuff.” he said. According to Butts, soldiers brought home memorabilia from the war and upon their death, family members found old grenades and the like inside their loved one’s homes. Most of the memorabilia is inert, but the bomb squad has dealt with live old explosives in the past.

“Depending on what country (the military ordinances) are made in and what type of explosives are inside it, over time a lot of it tends to degrade and get more sensitive,” Butts said.

Officers go through training two days out of every month. Thursday the Sheriff’s Department focused on robotics training, but some months will concentrate on X-ray systems, bomb disabling procedures or electronics. Using the robot is preferred when diffusing a bomb, according to Butts.

“If you blow up a robot – and they are expensive pieces of equipment – we would rather lose a $150,000 robot than a person,” he said.

Operation of the robot takes practice – the machine has many different moving parts. Between getting the angles right and the loss of depth perception when the robot is used by itself, many different components come into play within the operation. While the robot cannot be used for every bomb denotation, it can X-ray the explosive to help bomb squad members figure out what will set it off. The robot also has speakers and a microphone, which can be used in a hostage negotiation. The system and its capabilities as a whole remain classified in order to prevent “bad guys” from developing a form of defense against it.

The Safety Village provided an ideal place for the bomb squad to practice. The buildings provide obstacles and give bomb squad members an idea how the structures would affect the radio signal strength.

Established in 1971, the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office Hazardous Device Unit makes up one of the 469 bomb squad units nationwide. Three members are from the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office and one is from the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office. As is the case with most bomb squads in the United States, members of the Chautauqua County Squad perform their duties in addition to their primary duties.

The Safety Village is a non-for-profit organization which began as a grass roots effort in 1996. Sustained through fundraising efforts, grants and donations, the Chautauqua Children’s Safety Education Village is a child sized town completed with paved roads, street signs, railway crossing and 26 miniature buildings donated by area businesses and clubs. The purpose of the Safety Village is to provide a realistic area where children can learn about safety in a hands-on manner with the goal to decrease the number of unnecessary injuries and unfortunate fatalities of children in the community.