MAY 24, 2016, ORISKANY, N.Y. – The remote-controlled robot bumped across the divots of the grassy field until it reached the downed toy drone. Its camera gazed up and down as it examined the explosive device nearby, in a Taylor Swift lunch box tethered to the drone.
The New York Army National Guard Soldiers controlling the robot had never encountered such a scenario, but they were given an extraordinary opportunity: the ability to try new techniques, and the freedom to fail.
Twenty-one Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard’s Glenville-based 501st Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and its 1108th Ordnance Company (EOD) spent the week of May 16-20 training alongside “bomb squads” from New York and other states, the federal government, and Canada as part of the annual Raven’s Challenge exercise.
This is the second consecutive year that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Army have selected the New York State Preparedness Training Center here to host this event.
During the week, 18 EOD teams rescued women with bombs strapped to their necks, searched cabins in the woods for hidden bombs, and sweated in green bulky bomb suits.
One Hundred EOD team members and 90 support staff took part in the exercise. The exercise was organized around a concept unique to those participating. There was no standard, grade or evaluation for each exercise. EOD teams were encouraged to think outside the box.
“You’re not under the pressure of passing or failing, so you’re willing to try new things and see what works,” said Lt. Col. Jason Souza, commander of the New York Army National Guard’s 501st Ordnance Battalion.
Stopping a bomb is like a game of chess, Souza said: “You versus the bomber.” Whenever one side learns something, the other side will make a countermove. Training can teach concepts, but since each real-life mission is so unpredictable, he wants his soldiers to learn the basic concepts and then to think about different perspectives, Souza said.
“It may not be exactly what you did in training,” Souza said, “but you understand how things work, what does what.”
Started in 2004, the Raven’s Challenge is a multiphase exercise designed to increase interoperability between public safety bomb squads and military explosive ordnance disposal units in the United States. It is conducted annually in four states and sponsored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in conjunction with federal partners.
This was the second year that the New York Army National Guard’s EOD personnel had taken part in Raven’s Challenge.
Red-shirted controllers supervised each scenario, but their role was not grade, but simply to keep things safe and add new quirks to the exercises.
“There’s no win, or lose,” Scott Bialy of the Florida Division of State Fire Marshal said. “Try something new, learn something new. Even if you fail, you learn something.”
Military EOD teams and civilian agency teams team were matched together in each scenario.
Different organizations have different regulations on who’s responsible for what and what is allowed when approaching a bomb, Brent Ray, a red-shirted controller and a bomb tech at Camp Blanding in Florida, said.
Bringing the law enforcement and military approaches together in training is important for good communication in the real world, Ray said. “Let’s step outside the box,” Ray said. “Let’s try it and law enforcement way. Then, let’s try it the military way.”
At times, law enforcement and and military EOD teams would see and talk out the differences in how they approached a scenario. Civilian agency EOD teams and military EOD teams have each changed in the years since 9/11, Ray said. “There’s adjustments on both sides, Ray said. “Civilians haven’t even had a chance to work with the military. We’ve been gone so long: out of sight, out of mind.” Learning these differences in training, however, is important to know for missions in the real world.
“Everyone has their own way,” Jeff Ingerick of the Rochester Bomb Squad said.
“You look at some of what other people are doing and absorb what they’re doing well,” Ingerick said.
The culmination of the intense week-long training was a more efficient, streamlined and cohesive EOD community, participants said.
“Raven’s Challenge is an excellent training opportunity for the members of the New York Army National Guard’s 1108th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company who will be working alongside other military and law enforcement bomb disposal experts,” said Major General Anthony German, the Adjutant General of New York.
“This exercise enables our Citizen-Soldier bomb disposal (teams) to learn the latest techniques in dealing with explosive devices from civilian law enforcement bomb disposal experts and prepare them for the challenges they may face overseas or here at home, ” German said.
“New York continues to remain vigilant and enhance our preparedness in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, San Bernardino and Paris,” said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“The Raven’s Challenge is critical to ensuring that New York’s bomb technicians remain among the most skilled in the nation, and this knowledge makes this state safer for all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said.
Dealing with the downed drone with the bomb filled lunch box was a new experience for Airmen of the 914th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, who said they weren’t just replicating old techniques, but creating new ones.
“No one has encountered these before,” Tech Sgt. Adam Clement, a team leader with the 914th EOD said. “Our team is good enough to come up with something to defeat it.”
Clement said not having the pressure of being graded meant he could give more time to his newest team member, Senior Airman Justin Devantier, who was just two months out of EOD school.
Devantier had perhaps an hour “stick time” driving the robot prior to the exercise, but had already driven the robot around two hours in just one morning, in addition to wearing the bomb suit and operating an x-ray.
“You don’t get that every day, and it’s nice to get that done here,” Devantier said.