Picture this: The police find a device. Though they have a bomb squad, they don’t quite know what the device is, or what it will do. But they know it’s a threat. The army’s Instant Response Regiment is called in: their Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Technicians who will know what they’re dealing with; they will know exactly what happens if they fail to solve the puzzle in front of them. And if they do fail, the retriever medics go in, sweating in their special protective suits, to treat and get them out, knowing that if one bomb has gone off, there could well be another…
At 34, Sgt Rob Bailey is living testament to being good at his job. A combat engineer by trade, he has long been capable of disarming – sorry, “rendering safe or disposing of, conventional explosive ordinance – grenades, missiles, rockets, bombs – the sort of thing you find on a conventional battlefield”.
Sgt Bailey has further branched into another area of expertise – dealing with those nasty weapons even soldiers get squeamish about – chemical, biological and radiological – the ones that aren’t fair. Radiological, in case you were wondering, might be that dirty bomb in the briefcase left on the train seat, as opposed to nuclear, which implies missiles.
“The idea that I’m working on a bomb and it could blow up and kill me doesn’t weigh on my mind,” he says. “The level of training and the procedures we have in place are top-of-the-line – world class. Besides, once I’m on the job, the tempo pushes the thought of something happening out of my mind anyway.
“As an EOD tech, you’ve got to have a sense of what you can and cannot do. It’s not a job for cowboys. You need to really understand what you’re dealing with, what you’re going to do – and the result of what you can and cannot do. If you step in and think it’s something you probably can’t deal with, you just won’t, and you’ll come up with another plan.”
Having said that, Sgt Bailey acknowledges the level of risk – everything he deals with has a reasonable chance of killing him. “Sometimes you win, sometimes there’s a chance you’re going to lose. I’m dealing with things that operate in a huge variety of ways. There are familiar mechanisms of operation, but every device is different. They are assessed on their own merits – that way you can start reducing the risk.”
Second only to dealing with a device that might go off in his face, he says the most dangerous aspect is merely being on the job. “If you’re dealing with dangerous devices you don’t have to be sitting next to it to be in trouble. You just have to be in the same building, for example.”
Naturally, they don’t let any old yahoo have a go on bombs. A large part of what stands in your way is psychological testing. “You don’t want cowboys – but you also don’t want people who are indecisive. As a tech, you need to be able to take decisions and work on them, thinking not only about the device, but what’s going on around you.
“You also need people who are reasonably technical, people with common sense, and who have a logical, mechanical way of solving problems. Essentially, EOD is problem-solving. Here is a problem – solve it.” Quite an important problem.
Watching Sgt Bailey play red-wire-blue-wire (“sometimes it can come down to that”) is an anxious Private Ben Reid, 20, Retriever Medic. He is there in case the wheels come off, to patch together and bring back what’s left.
“We are stationed so we have visual contact, and can see what’s happening down-range. If it’s dark or in a tunnel, we have to be in hearing contact. If a bomb detonates, we will go down past the hotline [the line of perceived maximum extent of destruction], find the bomb-tech who has been injured, do front-line treatment, then bring them back for further medical treatment.”
Sounds simple, but all this is done wearing two heavy chemical/biological suits, and carrying what Private Reid describes as “antidotes for different devices”. He can’t tell us what they are, but does say that one of them will stabilise someone exposed to a chemical weapon. We don’t know what that involves, and we don’t want to know.
“The job is very physically demanding. You get very tired, very fast. You will get very hot, sweaty and agitated, and you have to be able to take that. You’ve also got to be capable of putting others before yourself – even though the danger is on your mind.
“If there’s a chemical threat, you really do think about it, due to the fact that it is a very dangerous job. Obviously if there’s rounds coming at you, you’re going to think, ‘Should I really do it?’ But it’s always the same – it’s my job to save someone’s life. It’s my job to get them back. You throw caution to the wind, go in and do your job. The worst part is knowing there’s maybe another device down-range that could detonate, and I could walk into it. The best part is saving someone’s life.”
There are no specific examples here. Everything is classified. For the Australian Army’s Instant Response Regiment, the events described above may have happened, several times, here or abroad. Or, they may not. Either way, just be glad there are guys like this to worry about it, so you don’t have to.
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