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Hall County one of busiest for GBI bomb retrieval unit

POSTED: August 10, 2014 12:10 a.m.

“Without a doubt, you can say that Hall County is one of our busiest counties,” said Mike Clayton, special agent in charge of the GBI’s special operations unit.

The unit responds to calls that range from a deceased person’s bomb left in a barn to an anti-theft device thrown on the side of the road. That’s what happened Aug. 1 when a device was left blinking and beeping on Spout Springs Road.

It’s a mix of awareness and proximity that keeps Clayton and the 26 bomb technicians of the unit rolling frequently into Hall.

“We’re five minutes from the county line. We have a bomb truck parked here in White County, and we can be in Hall County in just a matter of minutes,” Clayton said.

Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Nicole Bailes said there is no specific code for suspicious package calls, making such statistics hard to gather.

From 2011 to 2013, the number of calls each year to the GBI about suspicious packages and explosives has jumped from 168 to 229.

Clayton attributes this jump to greater vigilance and more training, citing a partnership in 2012 with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to do bomb threat awareness for schools.

“We added in a bunch of extra classes where we traveled the state talking to school districts about how you handle a bomb threat or an actual bombing,” Clayton said.

If a suspicious call is determined to be any sort of explosive, it gets categorized as a destructive device. Through half of 2014, there were 25 suspicious items and 11 destructive devices called in statewide to the GBI bomb disposal unit. In 2013, there were 31 suspicious items and 16 destructive devices.

In fiscal year 2014, eight calls were made from Hall County to the GBI bomb disposal unit, none of them being a destructive device. One involved recovering military ordnance, in addition to three suspicious item calls. The other four calls were for assisting with a scene and training.

Many actual destructive devices aren’t intended to harm people but are left behind by deceased relatives.

“(A family’s) gone to clean out the barn or something like that and found some old dynamite he’s had from 1930,” Clayton said. “Most of those, there’s not a criminal element that goes along with that.”

Military ordnance also is sometimes found on private property.

“We’re actually on a call right now where somebody’s out digging in their backyard to plant some flowers or doing some gardening of some kind, and they uncovered a hand grenade in the backyard,” Clayton said. “We get those constantly on construction sites. And even heavy rains may wash up a piece of military ordnance in somebody’s yard.”

Clayton said those calls are some of the most dangerous.

But training and equipment prepares agents for the task. Efforts have been made since the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to better handle calls about explosives.

“We would not have any of the equipment we have today if it wasn’t for the vision of GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency) and the GBI from back right after the Olympics,” Clayton said.

Ken Davis, GEMA’s public affairs director, agreed that incident contributed to more awareness in the region.

The GBI special unit is equipped with 10 bomb trucks, 13 bomb robots and other equipment, on a state budget of about $200,000 yearly.

“Every robot that we have and all of our X-ray equipment, every big-ticket item, is purchased through Homeland Security grant funds through the federal government, so the state of Georgia has not paid for any of that equipment,” Clayton said.

The standard robot, of which the GBI has eight, is about 31/2 feet tall and weighs about 450 pounds. The GBI also has five that are nearly twice that size. The larger robots work better with heavier explosives and inspecting vehicles that may carry explosives.

The price of the standard unit starts around $200,000, depending on the specifications wanted for the vehicle.

Clayton said the GBI trains with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. He encourages residents to alert the Sheriff’s Office is something feels out of place.

“We do a lot of training with them. We work with their SWAT team on a regular basis, and again, their awareness is probably at a higher level than some of the other counties,” he said.

The unit responded to eight scenes “post blast” in Georgia in 2013.

“I would rather them call and (have it) turn out to be nothing than somebody get injured by doing something that they shouldn’t be doing.”


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