Sheriff's Office adds a bomb squad; FBI accredits it

July 7, 2009 

Sheriff P.J. Tanner says Beaufort County residents and visitors shouldn't have to wait in line for help in an emergency.

So creating a four-man bomb squad at little cost to local taxpayers wasn't a difficult decision for him.

"It's like the DMV ... you go in there, you pick your number and you wait," Tanner said. "We need the assets here so that if we have a situation, we're not waiting on a SWAT team or another special-teams unit that could be in Greenville or somewhere else in the state. It could be hours before they get here, and some situations get very volatile in a hurry."

At a cost of $530,000 -- largely paid for through federal and state grants -- the Sheriff's Office officially added the bomb squad last week. It already has SWAT and dive teams and participates in a multi-agency drug task force.

The only county money used to create the bomb squad was about $1,200 to lodge and feed the deputies for six weeks while they trained with the FBI and the Army at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala.

The Sheriff's Office became the 12th law enforcement agency in the state to have a bomb squad after two deputies completed a two-year program to become certified by the FBI as bomb technicians. The unit also has an explosives-sniffing dog and a $180,000 robot. Two more deputies are expected to go through the training.

The FBI requires a department to have only two certified bomb technicians to earn its stamp of approval, but Tanner said having four technicians will enable the department to respond to calls throughout the county and the region and take full advantage of the federal grants.

"The citizens of this county deserve this unit, and it's really allowing us to bring state and federal dollars back into the county," he said. "The salaries of these four officers is already budgeted because this unit is a secondary responsibility for them. They still have to perform their day-to-day duties. All of the technology and schooling is paid for. The cost of having this specialized unit is covered."

Historically, Beaufort-area law enforcement agencies relied heavily on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to help disarm suspected explosives.

Tanner said the new bomb squad doesn't signal an end to the relationship between the base and local police.

"We will still utilize every asset available to us," Tanner said. "We have a great relationship with them, and we'll still use the EOD team when something comes up, but there are some limitations to what they can do. They can respond to a suspicious package or something like that, but they can't investigate it unless it occurs on federal property. Our guys can work these cases from the ground up."

The EOD's officer-in-charge said his unit will continue to help when asked.

"We have worked together on numerous occasions, ranging from Civil War-era cannon balls and World War II grenades to old dynamite found in someone's barn," said Chief Warrant Officer Brian Branch. "The bomb technicians at the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office know they can call on us day or night, and we will provide any support we can."

County administrator Gary Kubic said the combination of grants and existing staff to create the squad is a savvy administrative move during a period of government belt-tightening.

"Every service or program that we have as a county is being evaluated to determine whether or not that service is necessary," Kubic said. "I think what (Sheriff Tanner) has done is a great idea, and it certainly makes my job easier."

Kubic said Tanner might have met some resistance had he tried to create the bomb squad with county funding.

"When someone breaks into your house at 3 a.m., most people say, 'Hey, we love the bomb squad, but get a cruiser here now,' " Kubic said. "That would have been a tough sell."

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