CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — A whizzing noise followed a tank-like robot with a single retractable pincer attached as it zipped out of a hidden away training facility in Cheektowaga. On Wednesday, the sound marked a fun show-and-tell, but its operators say the remote controlled robot serves a serious role on the front line of protecting the general populace.
A crew of five green-clad Sheriff’s Deputies, who only just returned from an emergency call, unloaded gear into their centrally located headquarters for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad. The robot, one of the smallest in the squad’s fleet, is capable of precise movements at a great distance while still affording its operator a live image.
Behind the controls of the short, black robot is one of western New York’s most skilled bomb squad members. He’s part of the five-man team that responds to any western New Yorker in harm’s way of an explosive device.
Bill Cranston, a Captain with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, heads up the bomb squad. He explained residents may not hear about his team’s actions on a daily basis, but he said that’s likely for the best. Cranston’s team is called out at least once each week to respond to precarious situations. The number of calls in recent years has only grown.
“Recent events — worldwide and locally — have shown how busy we’ve become within the last several years, responding to calls all over the area for suspicious packages or pickup of military ordinances or homemade explosives. All the different jobs we handle,” Cranston said.
The most common emergency meriting a response from the bomb squad is raw explosives or military ordinances reported to police.
“A friend or relative brought back something from overseas … projectiles or grenades. Or somebody is cleaning out an attic or basement of a house they bought as is, and then they find something in there,” Cranston said.
The bomb squad recently rushed to the scene of a potentially live explosive in Buffalo. A local man bought a box of goods at an estate sale, only to realize he also purchased and brought home a military explosive. Cranston and his team went to work on Hoyt Street when they received the call in early August.
Within an hour, the bomb squad utilized robots, like the small, portable robot, to remove the device from the area. Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield said the device could have caused significant damage if detonated.
“They certainly would be severely injured. I don’t know if it would be fatally, but it is not something, certainly, that is made to hold,” Whitfield said.
So the bomb squad took the item to a range and detonated it a safe distance away from members of the public.
Cranston said his team approaches every mission the same way. His team gathers as much information as possible, then takes the necessary action to restore safety to the public.
“So we have a confirmed suspicious package that might be a bomb, let’s get the people out of there, get a safe evacuation zone — let’s make sure if thing does go off, nobody is going to get hurt by it. Then use our diagnostic tools to go up and see what is involved with this item and find out the best way to attack it and make it go away,” Cranston said.
The bomb squad took the same tactic when responding to a bank robbery in the Town of Tonawanda at the end of April. A bank robber entered the Bank of America branch, then threatened use of an explosive if the clerk didn’t comply. On the counter, the robber placed a package with a timer and sticks that appeared to be an explosive material. He took advantage of the commotion thereafter to escape.
Once the robber introduced an explosive to the robbery, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad rushed to the scene. They evacuated the public and shut down traffic in the area before sending a cousin of the portable robot.
They set into action the Wolverine — a 900 pound behemoth robot that can move a car. Robots act as the front line, their cameras form a first defense in lieu of valuable human lives, so when possible, bomb squad members will choose to stand clear while robots do the heavy lifting.
The squad, headed up that day by 20-year veteran of the force Lieutenant Greg Kent, sent in a robot to do heavy lifting, but a mishap forced human lives to be put in harm’s way. As an operator peered into screens to ascertain information on the robot’s surroundings, but the robot flipped over, rendering it incapable of moving forward.
Deputies suited up, donning heavy cloth suits with embedded armor to stop shrapnel, before entering the danger zone to right the robot on its course. When finally it entered the bank, the bomb squad learned the explosive device likely held no danger — the bank robber used a fake bomb as a threat.
Although no real danger threatened the bomb squad that day, they continued to use the utmost caution, in accordance with their training. That training, they say, is what makes them one of the best bomb squads in the area. Members will hold a 12-hour class each month, guaranteeing more than 144 hours of training each year. Before they can become bomb squad technicians, they take an intensive certification class through the Hazardous Devices School that requires re-certification every three years.
“It’s a great feeling because if for whatever reason, I don’t know the bomb techs from California or Washington D.C., but I know if we had to handle a call together for some reason, I know that at least at the start of our training, we all got the same material put at us,” Cranston said. “We all followed the same basic rules and guidelines set down by the FBI and the U.S. Army.”
Cranston said they put their training to the test each week when they go out on calls, the majority of which turn out similarly to the Town of Tonawanda bank robbery, with a device that poses little threat. Cranston said just because many calls end with a fake or innocuous device doesn’t mean very real and dangerous devices aren’t out there.
The entire Erie County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad faced a test when they responded to Niagara County to diffuse an explosive situation in Wheatfield. A man who built bombs in his garage accidentally detonated one, blowing off a section of his leg.
Police responded first to the scene, but within 40 minutes, the squad arrived, fully geared from Erie County. They dissected the scene, only to find a plethora of bombs, some of which were labeled. Members of the squad aided to disarm each, however in the ongoing case, details available to the public are limited. Michael O’Neill continues to be prosecuted for building the bombs in the garage.
After the tense nature of every potentially explosive situation dissolves, Cranston said he remembers his training and reminds himself he’s doing a service by keeping the public out of harm’s way. Cranston said members of the public are an integral to the bomb squad, as most calls come from concerned citizens, operating under the adage of ‘If you see something, say something.’
“I’d like them to keep doing what they’re doing, as far as seeing something suspicious and calling it into the local police agencies,” Cranston said. “We appreciate that, we don’t mind coming out for these items. Why take a chance, just keep doing what you’re doing, be vigilant.”