Hartford Police Bomb Squad

Hartford Policethumb7

The Hartford Police Bomb Squad leans on DuraStar® in their quest to keep the public safe.

On a hot July night in Connecticut in 2009, a kidnapper had run out of options.

Hours earlier, he had abducted his ex-wife from her office in downtown Hartford, and taken her back to the home they once shared—a home he now claimed to have wired with 65 lbs. of explosives. Outside, Lt. Dustin Rendock, commander of the Hartford Police Bomb Squad, decided to send in a Remotec ANDROS robot to deliver a “throw” phone they could use to negotiate. As it nosed up to the front steps, the robot created a brief window of distraction, allowing the hostage to escape out the back door. Without his bargaining chip, the kidnapper was arrested within hours. He was convicted of 10 charges—including arson— and sentenced to 70 years in prison.

Since then, there has been a slew of false alarms (like a 2012 art installation made out of a military ammo box, batteries and wires) and nonviolent but foolish experimentation for the Hartford Police Bomb Squad. Rendock attributes most of these incidents to curious kids.

“There are consequences: A recent victim lost a hand,” Rendock explains. Wearing sunglasses and dressed in black, the 43-year-old father of three is an imposing figure, his brown hair flecked with silver. His voice carries a reserved calm that, though disarming, conveys the seriousness of his job. “These were good students, into sports and doing well in school, but this was another part of their lives that the parents didn’t know about.”

There haven’t been any terror-minded bomb makers in Hartford since the mid-1990s, but incidents like the tragic Boston Marathon attack in April are a sobering reminder of the need for constant vigilance. Hartford sits just an hour and a half away from Boston, which automatically raised the area’s alert level in the spring.

Four specialized EOD units serve the five regions of Connecticut. The Hartford Police Bomb Squad, with its six men and one woman, presides over the Capitol Region. Each member of the team carries a regular assignment—detective, patrolman, counterterrorism, crime scene investigation—in addition to being on call for situations involving explosives or hazardous materials. They don’t receive additional compensation for volunteering on the squad. They routinely perform sweeps for celebrities and dignitaries, such as the president of Rwanda in March of this year.

On a bright Thursday afternoon in late April, Rendock is leading the team through a training exercise in a vacant lot in the shadow of one of Hartford’s housing projects. This sandy patch of ground, littered with broken beer bottles and cigarette butts, is adjacent to the heavily trafficked Comcast Theatre. It’s the perfect setting for today’s fictional premise: Someone has called in a suspicious package. The team mobilizes quickly, marshaling into a squad car and a SuperDuty pickup hauling a giant metal cylinder, known as a “bomb well,” used for transporting any live explosives they might recover.

Tailing the crew is the hero of this convoy: a souped-up DuraStar. The medium-duty monster is designed to withstand everything from blasts to bullet spray. Purchased with the financial help of the Federal State Homeland Security Grant Program, the truck is a significant upgrade from the squad’s old rig, an overweight and outdated box van that the department had long outgrown.

It was the rich heritage of International’s range of top-line emergency response vehicles that appealed most to Rendock when he was purchasing the DuraStar. It’s a heritage you can almost feel as the behemoth surges forward toward the training grounds with a guttural rumble, its tires gripping the asphalt, its 330 horses galloping beneath the hood. With Sgt. Jonas Riccitelli manning the wheel, the siren shrieks urgently, and from nearly 10 feet up in the cab, passenger cars seem the size of toys as the truck zooms past. The 31,000-pound hulk arrives at the lot and practically leaps up the earthen berm.

The truck has more than held its own since it was added to the team. Programmable presets on the Diamond Logic® system cut down on maintenance costs, upping the longevity of a vehicle that these men rely on to perform in highpressure situations every time it’s on the road. And with a 35,000-pound GWV, the truck can haul anything that’s needed. “It’s a toolbox on wheels,” Rendock says. “Being an automatic with an airbag rear suspension, it was a smooth transition for my bomb techs to go from operating a police cruiser to this.”

As we reach the parking lot of the fictional scenario, a K-9 handler leads a yellow Labrador named Charlie around parked cars, sniffing for traces of explosives. Charlie’s nose finds the scent package his handler has planted in the grill of an SUV, and the dog sits obediently to alert the officer, who rewards him with a treat from a pouch hanging at his waist. Meanwhile, the rest of the team has spotted something: a rectangular black duffel left unattended in the vacant lot. They’ve set up a perimeter, which includes a “hot” zone around the bag itself, a “warm” zone occupied by the truck and bomb squad, and a “cold” zone, where they would contain the crowd that would turn out if this were a live threat.

Thirty-four-year-old Pete Juda, normally a detective, heads out in a fire-retardant Med-Eng EOD 9 Bomb Suit, with ceramic plates down the front to protect his vital organs and a high collar to divert the pressure wave around his helmet if anything goes wrong. His hands, however, are left uncovered because of the dexterity required should he find himself in a situation where the package can’t be moved and he has to disable it himself.

As Juda flips down his visor and begins the long walk toward the potentially explosive bag, you wonder what would be going through his head if this were the real deal.

“You’re never going down range for just a quick peek of a suspicious package,” Riccitelli says, as he watches from a distance. “It’s different from being on a SWAT team, kicking down a door and running in to deal with someone with a gun. Usually time is on our side and we can think through the approach. This is more of a mental game than a physical one.”

When Juda gets up close, he’s looking for signs: exposed wires, batteries, flashing lights, antennas, leaks—anything that might give him clues about the nature of the bomb and whether it can be moved. “There’s always the risk that whenever you have to move it, it may detonate,” Rendock says. In this particular scenario, the robot will be called into action to carefully pick up the bag and set it in the bomb well, which will take it back to the police department’s range, where the squad will render it safe through a controlled detonation.

After they’ve put away the sweaty suit, loaded the robot back onto the truck, and tied down the canvas top on the bomb well, they’re ready to call it a day. There’s an easygoing quality to these guys—full of banter and jokes. “You need that camaraderie,” Rendock says. “We’re a unit, and we rely on each other to work well together.”

But as they’re saddling up, seven gunshots pop off a couple of blocks away. They freeze. Within minutes, the sound of barking dogs and sirens fills the air as their fellow officers hurry to the scene. The men linger for a moment, listening to their radios and trading theories about what happened, since they’re not on duty themselves. After a while, they load up and head back to the station, the tires of the DuraStar crunching over the gravel and broken glass. Emblazoned on the side, there’s an insignia of a soaring eagle clutching a billowing American flag, a symbol of vigilance, protecting the men and women who protect us.

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