Not far from Hanover, a team of bomb technicians and a military-trained bomb disposal expert are busy training first responders to prepare for what was once the unthinkable: terrorist attacks.
The team is part of Tripwire Operations Group, which specializes in mentoring military, law enforcement, emergency medical, fire and rescue first responders in techniques to detect, identify and neutralize improvised explosive devices, (IEDs). To date, Tripwire has taught more than 12,500 first responders how to work with bomb components and understand the construction and deployment of IEDs, according to Ryan Morris, Tripwire’s chief executive officer.
“If a bomb squad goes out, you also need EMS (emergency medical services) on site,” Morris said. “They need to know how to get people out of bomb suits. They need to understand blast effects and its associated trauma, so they can get people to the hospital for treatment.”
Founded in 2005, Tripwire is based in the Gettysburg area and has a large training facility in Lanett, Alabama. The 25,000-acre Lanett facility is used to train the military in countermeasures designed to deal with improvised explosive devices, IEDs, and other more sophisticated explosive devices ranging in size from a small package to large vehicle and car bombs.
As terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and on American soil increase in frequency, so does the need for well-trained first responders.
In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security listed the terrorist threat as “ELEVATED—Significant Risk Of Terrorist Attacks.” On December 2, there were14 people killed in two terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif. Less than a month before those attacks, a multi-individual, coordinated terrorist attack occurred in Paris, France, killing 120 people and injuring countless others.
“We know that pipe bombs and other explosive devices were used by the suspects in both the San Bernardino and Paris attacks,” Morris said. “We have mobile training teams that are poised to deliver training to military units, law enforcement personnel, firefighters and paramedics anywhere in the U.S.”
Morris, a civilian bomb technician, and Josh Mills, a military-trained bomb disposal expert, displayed a collection of replica bombs that they made duplicating bombs used in various terrorist attacks. Laptop computers and other common devices are often used to conceal bombs.
During a tour of the facility, Mills pointed to a six-liter pressure cooker bomb replica he made based on two pressure cooker bombs, which were detonated April 15, 2013, at the Boston Marathon. The pressure cooker was densely packed with pieces of metal and ball bearings, which acted as deadly shrapnel when the bombs exploded, Mills said. In that incident, three people were killed and more than 170 were injured.
“All things being equal, the homemade (bombs) sitting here and the commercially-produced ones sitting here—homemade compared to commercial grade are going to be of a lesser quality, less stable, more unpredictable and more dangerous,” Mills said, adding that formulas for making explosives are readily available on the Internet; and IEDs can be made from household chemicals purchased from hardware and department stores.
“You’re not going to know much about it.,” he added. “You take those same two explosives and place them in an actual scenario into an IED and they both become equally lethal.”
Terrorist weapons of choice are often IEDs, small arms and light weapons, such as handguns and rifles, Morris said. IEDs can be strapped to a suicide bomber’s body or easily hidden in radios, TVs and other commonly used appliances and electronic devices.
“There are two-and-a-half-hour videos on YouTube with laboratory notebooks about how to do X, Y and Z,” Mills said. “The videos show every single step of what (explosive) they’re creating. We’ve recovered notebooks and sketches inside of labs that are actually written by foreign individuals with a PhDs in chemistry and they are copied and distributed to every Joe on the streets.”
Tripwire utilizes TATP/HMTD, peroxide-based explosives, fertilizer and black powder bombs, plastique explosives, such as C-4 and Semtex, and other commercial formulations, such as dynamite in its training courses.
“I worked as a police officer for 19 years and I ran Penn State’s bomb squad,” said Morris, who moved to Gettysburg when he married an Adams County-area woman. “Then I went to work for Homeland Security in Baltimore where I operated their explosives division shop.”
In addition to Morris and Mills, other Tripwire team members include J.R. Huff, program manager of the K-9 training unit, who is a retired law enforcement officer from Georgia; and Michael Loney, a K-9 trainer, who worked for a police department in New York City.
Mills served with an Air Force bomb disposal unit for six years. After being discharged from the Air Force, he worked with Homeland Security in Philadelphia, and later, worked for the Threat Mitigation Laboratory, in Atlantic City, N.J., where he collaborated with Morris and other DHS personnel in joint exercises analyzing threats and developing response protocols. After working with Morris at the lab, off and on for three years, Mills decided to work with Tripwire.
Huff retired from law enforcement after a 35-year career working as a patrol officer, an undercover narcotics investigator, and with K-9 units. Huff is a certified Alcohol,Tobacco and Firearms, ATF evaluator, who specializes in explosives and narcotics detection. He is a master trainer of K-9 explosive and narcotic detection teams with the North American Police Work Dog Association.
Tripwire University offers a range of courses in explosive manufacturing, explosive detection and bomb disposal techniques; along with training for K-9 bomb and drug detecting dog and handler teams. Tripwire also offers classes in small arms weapons training and they sell explosives and specially modified handguns, assault rifles and other weapons used by military and police SWAT teams, Morris said.
As part of its explosive sales division, Tripwire also provides training with live and inert explosive materials for use by police, the military and in TV and movie special effects.
During the large Civil War reenactments held during the summer in Gettysburg, Tripwire was responsible for placing buried explosive charges simulating cannon shells exploding in the ground. Tripwire also provided explosive effects for the TV series “Alpha Dogs” on Nat Geo Wild. The show highlights the canine training work of Ken Licklider and his associates, who provide training for police and military working dogs and handlers around the world.
While explosives training is offered twice a week at the Gettysburg operations center, Morris said the company also offers training courses around the country. Upcoming training is planned for first responders in Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee.
“Our mainstay is selling explosives, making and selling firearms, and training,” said Morris, who continues to work as a part-time patrol officer with the Highspire Borough Police Department, in Dauphin County, Pa. “We provide explosive-related training, K-9 training for bomb squads, SWAT teams and military personnel.”
During a typical month, Tripwire provides training for up to 50 individuals, Morris said. They are under contract to provide training to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan police department canine unit. K-9 handlers and police dogs participate in weekly training programs at the Gettysburg headquarters.
Tripwire was born from a $1.5 million Department of Military and Veterans Affairs grant from Fort Indiantown Gap, home of the Pennsylvania National guard, to train first responders in National Incident Managment System procedures to recognize weapons of mass destruction. The training was provided under the umbrella of the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center, Morris said.
Tripwire trains bomb detection dogs to recognize a range of explosives – from dynamite to Semtex. The majority of bomb dogs are trained to detect a maximum of a few pounds of explosives. However, when faced with a 1,000 pounds of an ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb, for example, they can experience sensory overload and fail to detect a large bomb, Morris said.
For bomb detection K-9 teams, bomb disposal teams and other first responders, knowledge saves lives, and ignorance costs lives. Dealing with the unexpected is the routine, rather than the unusual, when dealing with explosive devices.
For more information, visit Tripwire at www.tripwireops.org.