Ask any law enforcement officer – from the local police department all the way up to a federal agency – about responding to a call about a suspicious package or possible explosive device, and they will tell you the same thing: It's better to err on the side of caution.
In Aiken last week, a suspicious package reported under a vehicle at a Whiskey Road hotel stirred a phalanx of officers in response, including the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, the Aiken Department of Public Safety, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The incident, which shut down a portion of Whiskey Road for hours and spread alarm throughout Aiken just days after a deadly bomb attack on the Boston Marathon, was a false alarm; however, authorities said it was an exercise in caution.
“Boston never really changed anything for us – 9/11 did,” Sheriff Michael Hunt said during a press conference on Thursday. “We've always had good plans with our emergency services division and our other agencies – Chief Barranco at Public Safety and all our other state and federal agencies. So we have a plan for just about everything.”
Sgt. Jake Mahoney, of Aiken Public Safety, said local agencies often don't have the equipment or personnel to respond to an explosive threat.
“We don't have any specific resources for explosive detection or explosive disposal, so we rely on our partners in law enforcement such as SLED, ATF and the Sheriff's Office for explosive detection and canine operation,” he said.
The Sheriff's Office has two explosive detection canines – a black Lab named Trigger and a yellow Lab named Cooper. The dogs were used by the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan to find IEDs for special forces Marines, according to Sgt. Selwyn DeLoach, explosive canine coordinator.
“They are trained to detect anything from C4 to things that have been used in terrorist attacks, like ammonia nitrate,” he said. “These dogs are trained on minute amounts, meaning they can detect these odors from a fair distance away.”
DeLoach said the canines are called out eight to 14 times per month.
“In this day and age, especially with Boston, our call rate goes up because people are becoming more vigilant,” he said. Capt. Troy Elwell said once the dogs find a package, or if a package is visible to officers such as last week's incident, the local agency will call for additional help.
“If we've already located it, then we call in the bomb techs with the robots and all the toys to either take it apart on scene or detonate it,” Elwell said. “One of the main reasons is because the training is so specific. There's so few individuals across the state or country trained in these types of incidents.”
SLED will respond to an incident “in support of local law enforcement agencies,” according to Thom Berry, SLED spokesman.
“When we respond, we will send personnel and resources that the local agencies feel like they need from us,” Berry said, adding that SLED's response depends on what the local agency needs. For last week's incident, SLED sent bomb technicians and a special robot.
Berry said the robot, which has a camera mounted on it, allows officers to get an up-close look at devices without putting an officer in danger. There is also a rifle mounted on the robot that can shoot the package if that needs to be done.
“That's usually when you get the worst-case scenario,” Berry said.
At one point during last week's incident, a technician dressed in a protective suit approached the vehicle and removed a can that was apparently wedged under the car.
“These are blast suits that provide as much protection as possible for the technician,” Berry said. “It is a suit that covers the wearer as much as possible but still allows the technician in that suit at least some mobility to work around the package or the device itself.”
Often, the local or state agency will call the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We are the bomb experts,” said Agent Earl Woodham, an ATF spokesman. “We don't just go out on every package that's dropped or every bomb threat. When another agency requests our assistance in investigating a suspicious package that is suspected to contain explosive material, we will respond and help in the investigation.”
ATF has certified explosive specialists in all of its field offices, Woodham said, including in Charleston and Columbia. Once called, the specialists get to the scene as soon as possible, sometimes within minutes.
“There are cases where one CES will go and make a determination what resources are needed,” Woodham said. “If one CES goes and determines it's a much larger suspected device, or there are multiple devices, they can request more assistance.”
If a package or device explodes, a national response team will be sent to the scene, Woodham said. Such teams were sent last week to Boston and West, Texas. The team will then reconstruct the scene and the device.
Woodham said ATF will take the lead of an incident or investigation if called to a scene.
“Once we're requested, that means somebody wants us to come in,” he said. “If we bring our expertise to a scene, we will manage it until it's determined whether the suspected package is an explosive device.”
If authorities determine before that an incident or package is terrorism-related, the Federal Bureau of Investigations will take the lead on the investigation, Woodham said.
“If it's anything other than terrorism … then we would maintain the scene and be in control of it throughout,” he said. “ATF takes a back seat in terrorism investigations to the FBI. We would help them and provide expertise to them. They would be the primary investigative agency on any terrorist-related investigation.”
ATF also has its own robots, which can take X-rays of a package and even place a “shot” on it and blow it up in place, Woodham said.
Thursday's false alarm brought a “Who's Who” of law enforcement to Whiskey Road, but all the officers said their agencies work well in concert and have done so for a while.
Woodham said the field of explosives training is very narrow, which requires collaboration of the agencies.
“Even though it might be the sheriff's department or department of public safety or SLED or ATF or FBI, all these people have worked together before,” he said. “They've trained together before, they know each other. It's not their first rodeo.”
Berry said many incidents can be dealt with by local agencies, but SLED will be ready for the call.
“If they feel like they need additional assistance, they can come to the state level. We can then turn to our federal partners,” he said. “It's where we complement each other to be able to provide a more coordinated response to an incident such as the one that occurred in Aiken.”