Bomb teams cover state through collaboration

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By Carol A. Clark

ALBUQUERQUE — Six bomb squads are scattered throughout the state. The Los Alamos Police Department, Albuquerque Police Department, Santa Fe, Doña Ana County, Farmington and the New Mexico State Police each house specially trained bomb teams.

“All six teams collaborate and respond for each other,” said Tom Sparks, a special agent bomb technician with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Albuquerque. “Susan Walker from the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management helps facilitate grant monies for the bomb teams. Los Alamos police got their bomb truck through grant funding and are responsible for responding to incidents in the county including the Laboratory, with possible limited exceptions.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory maintains a hazardous devices team that operates differently and is not included in the six official bomb squads in the state.

“LANL’s HazMat bomb team is not comprised of FBI-certified civilian bomb technicians and therefore is not recognized as a certified bomb team based on national guidelines,” Sparks said during an interview earlier this month in his Albuquerque office.

Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy explained that LANL’s bomb technicians are “a very competent group of individuals with very specific responses to hazardous materials incidents.”

He explained that the police response is legally defined and must not only render safe the device but also preserve, collect and properly present evidence in a prosecutorial manner that will stand up in court.

“The Lab and the police department each have a particular purpose and have expertise, which compliments each other,” Torpy said. “The fact that the Lab’s bomb team is not FBI certified and is not sanctioned by the FBI does not affect the fact that they have a very specific expertise and we work together as cooperatively as circumstances allow.”

Lt. Scott Mills is a member of the Los Alamos Police Bomb Squad. He discussed his experience with LANL’s Hazardous Devices Team during an interview Wednesday.

“LANL’s bomb squad members and the Los Alamos Police Bomb Squad members have worked together in a very professional environment for several years,” Mills said. “The LANL bomb team members bring to the table several decades of combined experience and we draw on that experience on a regular basis. We work together and train together and support each other’s missions although our missions are decidedly different.”

Jeff Berger, director  of LANL’s Communications Office addressed the certification issue Thursday afternoon.

“The Lab’s Hazardous Devices Team is authorized by DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration to respond to emergency and non-emergency situations at Los Alamos National Laboratory that involve reported suspicious hazardous devices, unexploded ordnance and reactive chemicals,” Berger said. “The purpose is to protect DOE facilities and employees. Our team’s top priority is the safety and security of the Lab.”

In addition, the LANL Hazardous Devices Team provides training in support of the U.S. military, DOE personnel and other customers, he said.

“FBI certification is not required to perform these activities,” Berger said. “While the three members of our Hazardous Devices Team are not certified by the FBI, they are highly qualified. They have more than 90 years of combined experience with the U.S. military and with law enforcement and operate under the requirements of federal law.”

Berger added that as a matter of course, members of the Lab’s Hazardous Devices Team notify law enforcement when it is known or strongly suspected that a reported incident is criminal in nature and they cooperate with responding agencies.

“In that event, the team makes every effort to protect a crime scene and preserve evidence until law enforcement arrives – unless doing otherwise is necessary to protect life and ensure safety.”

Sparks is the coordinator for the State of New Mexico Bomb Teams. He is responsible assisting the teams with everything having to with the hazardous devices school and the certifying of technicians. He has traveled overseas a number of times for various bomb related reasons.

Sparks also assists with bombing matters and helps determine if any federal nexus exists, which he said can be difficult to determine on site.

In 2007, there were 256 bombing matters in New Mexico, he said. “In September of 2007 we were called out to Gallup because state police received reports from people who had witnessed a fireball several miles north of town,” Sparks said. “ATF, APD, FBI, McKinley County Sheriff and Gallup police all responded.

“Three cars were exploded in that area and this was the largest of the three incidents.”

It turned out that a father planted explosives in the vehicle and brought his children along for the fun of watching it blow up.

“He endangered himself and his kids and he endangered another father and his son hunting in the area,” Sparks said. “In July 2008, a man blew himself up carrying six pipe bombs into his house with his mother inside. My advice to the public is do not go out and blow stuff up for the fun of it – explosives are highly volatile and could blow you fingers off, blind you or kill you.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her newsblog at