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Bomb techs get hands-on experience at Camp Gruber

By D.E. SMOOT | Muskogee Phoenix | Published: March 25, 2021

BRAGGS, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Bomb technicians and explosive ordnance disposal units scattered across Camp Gruber this week to learn about emerging threats and hone their skills during a live-fire tactical training exercise.

Raven's Challenge Interoperability Exercise is a national preparedness program led by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The exercise, scheduled four or five times a year at various locations across the country, attracts local, state and federal law enforcers, military personnel and international partners from around the world.

The full-scale training event provides participants with opportunities "to use cutting-edge technologies and interoperability communications tools to safely resolve improvised explosive device incidents." The weeklong event allows enough time to "exchange tactics, techniques and procedures" and forge relationships between civilian and military agencies.

"We put a lot of resources ... and time into making things look and feel as real as possible," said Raven's Challenge Program Manager John V. Simpson. "We're not here to evaluate anybody ... We assume everyone to be fully trained and fully capable when they come here, we just provide the scenarios for them to exercise."

Simpson said many scenarios focus on emerging threats, scenarios the participants could encounter after completing the course. He said when real-life events within the program's scope occur, "we will simulate it, figure it out, and — if we can — run it."

"I have a terrible fear of ever getting stale in our scenarios," Simpson said. "So we are constantly evolving."

One scenario participants worked through Wednesday involved disarming an explosive device attached to an automated teller machine. ATF agents said the use of explosives to steal money from ATMs not only poses a threat to public safety, it could cause instability in financial markets.

"Unfortunately it's becoming a greater problem ... and we're just concerned that the problem is going to get worse," ATF Special Agent Matt Nollau said. "There has been a growing number of attempts since 2015.

Nollau said about 18% of the more than 130 attempts to steal money from ATM machines using explosives or other types of energetic material proved successful. Bomb and EOD techs had the chance Wednesday to disarm devices attached to working ATMs that were "plugged in and functioning like they would be in real life."

"The goal is to make it as real as possible," Nollau said. "The teams have the freedom to address the problems as they see fit, so whatever tools they have available to them they're using to defeat the problems."

The teams consist of civilian and military technicians "who work together to solve problems" that are presented during the scenarios. Because there is no manual to work from, Nollau said the scenarios also provide an opportunity to get hands-on experience with inter-agency responses before an active situation occurs in the field.

Danny Waltenbaugh, a senior explosives enforcement officer with ATF, said "teamwork is absolutely essential" when dealing with explosives.

"No one single person can run all the equipment and the material in order to perform the actions here, so they have to work as a team," said Waltenbaugh, who was overseeing a railroad threat scenario. "The state and local bomb squads, as well as the military folks, have to work together, integrate their equipment and develop a plan and a procedure on how they're actually going to do it by collecting information, developing that procedure and then acting."

Raven's Challenge is funded by the Department of the Army. In addition to ATF agents, manpower is provided by a number of other federal agencies that include the FBI, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration.

During the past 15 years, Raven's Challenge has helped raise awareness about the evolving threat posed by explosives and bombings, and the importance of a coordinated response.

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