Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units in the public transit sector are becoming more visible. As a result, they provide not only a deterrent to would-be criminals but also give passengers a comfort zone in seeing how security is handled.
Bomb-sniffing dogs are one aspect of an EOD unit. Started in 1972 and referred to as the Explosives Detection Canine Team Program, the canines were initially trained to conduct thorough searches of airport terminals and aircrafts. This has changed since the Nixon era, with the teams now covering transit and rail systems as well.
Originally managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and now handled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a pilot program was eventually created to utilize the teams within public transit. In 2000, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) became the first transit agency to receive a certified canine team.
According to TSA spokesperson Yolanda Clark, one significant reason why MARTA was chosen is because its rail station is located at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.
“The station is built into the physical infrastructure of Hartsfield,” she explained. “Passengers can take MARTA directly into the airport, check in and then proceed onto the concourse.”
MARTA recently added a third canine team to its Bomb Assessment Team (BAT), and a fourth is currently undergoing TSA training.
MARTA Chief of Police Gene Wilson considers the canine teams the most visible aspect of the BAT and is pleased with the outcome of the pilot program.
“They’re on the system for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “It is a deterrent; it gives people that ride public transportation a sense of security; and we’re also using the program to see if the dogs work for us.”
In sizing up what the venture has meant for the transit system, Wilson added, “Are we getting a good return for our investment? Right now, I’d say that we are.”
The canine teams cover the entire MARTA system and are stationed wherever the agency sees fit. So far their presence has been welcome by passengers.
“People are aware that these units are for their safety,” said MARTA spokesperson Steen Miles. “They don’t appear to be inconvenienced or repulsed by these big dogs.”
At the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), although canines are part of the bomb squad as well, its latest addition is far from being furry.
A robot manufactured by Remotec in Oak Ridge, Tenn., joined the WMATA team this summer. Costing well under the $150,000 offered by the federal government, the final product took several months to complete. The machine provides the three-member squad with a safety cushion.
“The robot is what we would call a ‘weapons platform,’” said WMATA Officer Bill Potts. “It has the capabilities to inspect a suspicious device, and do so at a very safe distance from the operator or bomb tech.”
Having multiple cameras and an articulated track chassis for all-terrain maneuvering abilities, the customized robot is also narrow enough to travel down train or bus aisles. Although the robot hasn’t been used in an actual operation, the officers continue to train with it.
Because WMATA’s EOD unit is not full-time, the most important issue is maintaining the safety of not only the public but of the officers themselves.
“We’re not a full-time unit, but we’re working on that right now,” said Potts. “Having collateral duties is a problem that limits our abilities.”
Having regular patrolling duties in addition to bomb squad responsibilities can interfere with the time that must be devoted to one or the other.
“It hasn’t become a safety issue yet, but it’s a possibility. The trend is to have full-time units, and that’s what we’re hoping for,” Potts said.