Bomb Squad Takes Over the Mill at Vicksburg

By Sue Moore

A bomb threat in small-town Vicksburg would be unsettling to village residents. But not a staged one. It turns out The Mill is a fine place to stage a bomb threat and send a robot in to find and remove it.

The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) bomb squad conducted the drill.“The Mill was a perfect location to learn how to navigate the small passages with our robot Andros-F6B. The robot would seek out the previously planted bomb and haul it to a safe place for detonation,” said Mike Kelley, bomb squad commander. “We liked the concrete walls of the mill, that the building was abandoned and we could control the situation. It could resemble a real-life situation in a building such as a hospital.”

“We serve all of Kalamazoo County with our bomb squad,” said KDPS Chief Karianne Thomas. “We had about 20 calls last year for suspicious packages. When the need is there we call all hands on deck. The five members on the squad have training in how to operate the robot and how to work with potentially dangerous and unknown contents.” The robot costs in the neighborhood of $125,000 and has been in KDPS possession since 2000. It was financed by grants and donations to KDPS. It has been used many times, most recently to secure a pipe bomb that was found in a house in the county, Thomas noted.

The crew began the exercise by planting the fake bomb within the cavernous mill, then unloaded the robot from a truck parked outside. The robot is equipped with a camera, sensors and a jaw-like device that can pick up an object and move it to a place where it can be detonated. An X-ray camera is used to survey the contents, all the while transmitting pictures of it back to the control room in the truck. The remote control was operated by Detective Sara Choi, a bomb technician. Choi was assisted by bomb technician Matt Bombich, a laboratory specialist in the Forensics Lab. Bombich is a Vicksburg resident who serves as a volunteer co-leader of the Vicksburg middle and high school robotics teams.

Once the suspect bomb was safely out of the building and in an open space, the robot and any people were out of the way, the squad detonated the object. The sound was as loud as a 12-gauge shotgun. Commander Kelley joked that birds in the area can expect a feeding frenzy with the bird seed packed into the practice bomb.

KDPS has also been active in the Mill conducting 3D laser scanner training in recent weeks.

The 3D laser scanner initiative was started to provide training for the Kalamazoo Crime Lab in the use of its equipment. They also plan to provide three dimensional and scaled data to the Vicksburg High School engineering class, which has been doing 3D mapping of the Mill for its project-based course work.

After the practice was over, Chief Thomas made a pitch for recruits who want to become police officers. She said the ideal candidate might be looking for a new and different line of work. Starting pay increases as certifications and training are completed and increases with tenure within the department. The defined pension plan is good too, she told the crowd of camera operators and reporters from MLive, WOOD TV and Fox 17 News.

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