Vol. 81, No. 4Ask an expert

A male RCMP officer stands in front of a large water cannon.

Problem solving can be a blast

Teamwork key to bomb-disposal work

As an RCMP explosive disposal expert, Sgt. Chris Wilkie says when he goes to a call, he needs to be prepared for anything. Credit: RCMP

Diffusing an explosive device might be one of the most dangerous jobs in the RCMP. Whether dealing with a single bomb or a stash of old dynamite, members of Explosive Disposal Units (EDU) are called in to make dangerous materials safe. Paul Northcott spoke to Sgt. Chris Willkie, a 17-year veteran of EDU based in Winnipeg, Man., about his work.

What's your job?

We protect people and property from the dangers of unexploded devices. There are seven of us in this unit and we get calls from all over of Manitoba. We don't usually work in Winnipeg because the city police have their own EDU. We've been involved in cases where investigations have led to arrests. I'm also involved with the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive materials response team, which examines events that could be linked to terrorist activity.

What training is needed?

You start with the basic explosive handling course at the Canadian Police College. That's four weeks. There's also a week of training with an x-ray system that can reveal details of the device you're focused on, before you have to render it safe. The training teaches you to stop a bomb from detonating, so you learn about the electronic components associated with explosive devices. After that, you'll know enough to keep yourself safe. But you learn more when you attend calls, which you never go to alone.

What are the qualities of a good explosives expert?

Problem solving, acting calm, clear thinking and being able to work with a team. You've only got one chance to get this right and you have to be prepared for anything. You have to step back and really assess what's before you.

What equipment do you use?

We have a five-ton, 24-foot bomb truck that carries everything we need to render a bomb safe. We have the bomb suit, which protects us in case of a blast. We use robots that can more closely examine the device, x-ray technology that can provide more details about its components and a water cannon. When we decide to disrupt the device with a water cannon, the team uses the water to disrupt the power supply the device needs to detonate.

What's it like wearing a bomb suit?

It's a 90-pound (40-kg) suit of armour that's front loaded with Kevlar and a heavy ceramic protective plate, all designed to protect the vital organs in case of an explosion. Your field of vision is limited and your hands are not as protected because you need to feel or touch objects. Also, I've met people who say they're not claustrophobic, but when you first put that suit on, you can feel alone pretty quickly.

Tell me about one of your calls and what you learned?

We received a call from Sherridon, Man. (north of Flin Flon) for dynamite in the basement of an abandoned hotel, where we actually found thousands of detonators. So you have to go into situations with an open mind, not knowing what you're really going to face. The detonators were all copper based and unstable. There were about 15,000 of the detonators in the basement, which was very small and partially collapsed. We couldn't even wear our bomb suits. So they were removed in batches by hand. They were later wrapped with an explosive charge and disposed of.

What's the biggest challenge of the job?

No two devices are the same, so it's the unpredictability of what you may face when you get called. But that's the greatest thing, too. It's very challenging. If you get stressed easily then EDU is probably not for you. When the team is called out, everyone views the situation. Then you have to discuss things and develop a plan that everyone believes in. We need to have a collective vision because it's a job where you can't say, "Well that's it, we can't figure it out. Let's go home."

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