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It would not be accurate to state that the world changed on September 11, 2001–terrorist attacks on civilians had taken place in troubled areas of the world for many years prior. At the time, the attacks weren’t even the first to occur in the United States in many years. But the widespread scale of the attacks did reveal that the United States and the West had some catching up to do in combating international terrorism. The truth is, a few years earlier the Federal Bureau of Investigation began working on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of investigating a common type of attack: bombings that utilized large vehicles as a delivery method.
The FBI’s Large Vehicle Bomb (LVB) Post Blast Investigation Course has been developed with the realization that, unfortunately, great potential for large-scale terrorist attacks against Western interests will exist for the foreseeable future. A key element of the course is a reliance on Global Navigation Satellite System [GNSS] technology, which can help law enforcement precisely and efficiently reconstruct bombings and better deal with a highly chaotic, metastatic threat.
Unique Logistical Challenges
Two attacks on U.S. soil that preceded 9/11 involving truck bombs, one built and detonated by foreign terrorists (first World Trade Center attack, 1993) and another by domestic ones (Oklahoma City, 1995) introduced the need for more specialized training to augment the law-enforcement community’s existing expertise with explosives. The sheer scale of an LVB scene investigation presents unique logistical challenges, according to FBI Special Agent Bomb Technician Kevin Miles, who teaches the courses around the world.
Oklahoma City was the first instance of a modern terrorist attack on U.S. soil that underscored the need for intelligence and law enforcement to adapt to a new reality. Unlike the device used beneath the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bomb was detonated in an open space, leaving behind a large-scale LVB scene characterized by widespread destruction. Miles argues that co-conspirator Terry Nichols was tried after Timothy McVeigh, giving Nichols’ defense team a preview of the prosecution’s trial strategy and the defense attacked investigators’ evidence-gathering and recording techniques. "These weren’t glaring mistakes that cost us the case, obviously, but you have students in the course think about attention to detail and make sure they have trained people on the crime scene," says Miles, a team leader in the Oklahoma City investigation who previously had been on the Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Department’s bomb squad before joining the FBI in 1990.
The FBI had developed a post-blast crime-scene investigation (CSI) course that was suitable for incidents such as car bombings. The basic course was developed for the FBI’s evidence response teams, all of which have responsibility for gathering and preserving evidence in some capacity. In 1998, an attendee recommended in a course evaluation that the bureau develop an advanced course to prepare attendees for extreme cases such as Oklahoma City. Miles and two now-retired explosives experts from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, George Gomez and Sgt. Howard Rechtschaffen, then developed the LVB course. Gomez, a now-retired sergeant and training coordinator with the arson and explosives detail who had a 35-year career with the sheriff’s department, recalls how he and Miles got acquainted. Miles had been transferred to the Los Angeles Division of the FBI (FBILA) early in his bureau career and immediately reached out to local law-enforcement organizations regarding their LVB investigation training needs.
Miles notes that the primary thrust of the course is managing a vast, complex site and organizing its details. As of spring 2009, more than 100 courses had been held for more than 5,900 students from all 50 states and 16 foreign countries and several sessions had been conducted in foreign countries. Attendees’ backgrounds have included civilian or military bomb technicians, post-blast investigators and CSI personnel. In recent years, bomb technicians deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan have gotten priority in filling seats. Another sign of the dynamic nature of counterterrorism is the fact that the FBI has also continually updated its database with advancements in improvised explosive devices used in these countries.
The courses are usually held on large military bases with plenty of room for LVB simulations, such as the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. Attendees learn about management of a large blast scene, team configurations, explosive physics, contamination avoidance, chain of custody and residue analysis, among other concepts. Miles asserts that the training has applicability to nonterrorism CSIs such as traffic accidents, homicide investigations, plane crashes and train crashes.
"The students we get in the class are mostly veteran bomb technicians," Miles points out. "They have to have some training in bombs and post blast before they come to the class because if they’re rookies, they’ll be lost. We understand that anybody can pick up evidence and put it in a bag, but organizing the crime scene is a lot more difficult. We go over some of the mistakes that were made with other LVB scenes. We teach the students not to make the same mistake. We basically tell them, don’t give the defense attorney anything to grab onto and if you do this the right way, the defense attorney won’t have anything to grab onto, at least when it comes to the crime scene."
Gomez explains how the course addresses the challenges of managing an LVB scene. After reviewing the forensics of explosives with attendees who are already well-versed in the discipline, "we move on to how to coordinate personnel, how to best utilize your personnel, who’s going to be doing what," says Gomez. "It’s important to know that whoever is going to the incident commander is not going to be a worker bee. You, as the incident commander, must coordinate all the efforts of your people to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible." He adds that urban or suburban settings pose challenges in addition to the large scale of LVB scenes. "You’re going to be dealing not only with a large area, but look at the agencies you’re going to have to be dealing with. The coordination of the efforts is very important in applying what needs to be done."
According to Duke Dutch, manager of law enforcement applications for GNSS technology provider Sokkia who assists the instructors with training, the course also prepares attendees to maintain their focus in environments that can be overwhelming. "For the law enforcement community, the shock value is off and they’ve seen something similar to this when they arrive on the scene," Dutch says. "If they haven’t seen something like it, they may misidentify which vehicle contained the bomb or they may organize the search incorrectly. The collection of evidence has become very systematic. The agencies that attend the course, if this happens in their city, not only do they gain a lot of contacts who can help them but they’ve also seen how the organization of evidence is so crucial."
During the week long, 40-hour course, students spend most of the first two days in the classroom receiving overviews of LVBs, learning what to expect on the scene, and identifying post-blast injuries. On the second day, some instructors detonate a bomb on the nearby grounds and toward the end of the same day, the students form an investigative team and begin to survey the crime scene. Over the nex
t day and a half, the students more thoroughly process the blast scene.
Miles indicates that the limited time available to attendees to gather evidence and build a case is good training because they are forced to focus their efforts quickly. "We’ve done blast scenes that are 250 acres in total areathat’s huge-and we only give them a day and a half to process the scene," he says. "We teach them where to concentrate their initial searching so that they don’t waste time because we give them only about 10 hours total." The team’s primary task is to reconstruct the blast scene for a jury in the courtroom.
The blast-scene evidence is compared with mock evidence gathered from an imaginary bomb builder’s house or bomb-storage facility. On the last day of the course, the investigation team presents its case to an actual prosecuting attorney in the state, federal or military system, who provides a prosecutorial opinion of the team’s methods and case. The case is also compared with a viewing of an actual video of the explosion.
High-tech Scene Reconstruction
During the LVB scene investigation phase of the course, a three- or four-person mapping team plots the perimeter and area of the scene and locates the debris that is the farthest from the blast point in all four directions. One team member carries a backpack with what looks like a disc on a stick protruding from the top, as well as a handheld device that is about three times as thick as a Blackberry. The backpack device, a Sokkia LEA RTK Mapper, and the Pocket PC Data Logger are key instruments for helping the investigating team process evidence on LVB blast sites that might cover hundreds of yards.
GNSS, which originated as a military technology, increasingly is being utilized in commercial applications requiring precise location. In construction, for example, contractors are adopting this technology to verify grading and excavation work in comparison with official surveys and, in some cases, even develop as-built surveys. Real-time kinetic (RTK) GNSS works by synthesizing satellite signals from two stations to locate coordinates on a grid. Both a base station–which is deployed in a stationary position–and a rover station receive satellite signals. The rover is moved around a site on foot or mounted to a vehicle and works in conjunction with the base station to provide real-time kinetic position information and reveal the rover’s three-dimensional location on the site. The Bluetooth wireless-capable Pocket PC Data Logger is used to record the location of landmarks–in the case of the LVB course, bomb fragments, debris and any reference points used to recreate the blast scene.
Dutch points out that, in contrast to a conventional surveying rover mounted on a pole that is at least as tall as the average person, the LEA RTK Mapper is customized for the mapper’s personal safety. "The military’s primary objective is not to draw attention to themselves and get shot," he says. "So the equipment has been changed so that it can perform the job but also not draw a lot of attention to the people collecting the evidence. We’ve had several agents specifically ask for this same type of product." He adds that the rover’s portability allows a soldier to keep his hands free for carrying a weapon, for example.
The mapping team provides Dutch with the location data collected with the system. Dutch uses the data to graphically reconstruct the blast scene on a display board used to help the investigation team present its case to the prosecutor. Specialized software such as Microsurvey’s Evidence Recorder or CAD Zone’s Crime Zone can also reconstruct the scene using the GNSS data.
"Without this equipment, they would have to use handheld measuring devices-tape or even handheld lasers," says Dutch. "[GNSS] just changes the entire scenario because you don’t have to worry about north as an orientation. Oklahoma City was done by several agencies by total station and a total station doesn’t know where it’s at and what direction is north, so you humanly have to set it." He adds that compasses have an inherent true north variability that could call an investigation’s credibility into question.
GNSS data, in contrast, is much more reliable in the courtroom, Dutch argues. "From my point of view, RTK [GNSS] is almost impossible for them to attack because it is actually a point on Earth and with every single receiver that you turn on, unless you mess with it, is going to give you exactly the same north and exactly the same coordinates relative to where you are." He adds that the LEA RTK Mapper is set up to correct an error in location sent by the base station, so the location he receives on the rover is always accurate to within five or ten millimeters. "The coordinates are coordinates, so when you generate a map on a computer, the point on the screen has the same coordinate as the point on the field, so for them to attack how that was processed is almost impossible. Also, it’s very difficult to manipulate coordinates because you’d have to manipulate every single one."
Adds Gomez, "Let me make an analogy: compare a hand sketch of a crime scene versus a two-dimensional rendition by a crime scene artist. That’s the difference–you’re going to get a product that’s very precise in distance. You just enter the data, print it out and there you have it. The days of tape measures are gone."
Don Talend of Write Results Inc., West Dundee, Illinois, is a publicity and communications project manager specializing in technology and innovation.
A 2.413Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE