Lexington had a small squad of police officers and firemen who were responsible for handling explosives in the 1970s, but the program ended in the mid-'80s.
After that group disbanded, Kentucky State Police assumed responsibility for calls about hazardous devices in the late '80s and '90s.
Back then, calls about pipe bombs were prevalent. And, at the time, the squad likely handled more actual devices without the aid of specially tailored suits and robotic technology, said Lexington police Lt. Clayton Roberts.
"The early equipment was very rudimentary, and they had a lot of activity back then," said Roberts.
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Things changed. And as calls began increasing, and grant money became available, administrators saw an opportunity to establish a new bomb squad in the 21st century.
Roberts was one of the first officers recruited for Lexington police's Hazardous Devices Unit in 2001; he took over command in 2005.
The unit typically fields 40 calls a year but has had as many as 75 in its busiest year. It has visited 35 counties in Kentucky and one in Indiana.
Lexington's squad joins four other police agencies in Kentucky — Kentucky State Police, Louisville, Owensboro and Paducah. The five squads have learned to work in tandem when it's necessary — from sharing resources and manpower to communication and even requesting funds. Lexington police, for example, will assist Georgetown, Richmond and surrounding communities.
The level of cooperation is unique, Roberts said.
"What I've found is we don't necessarily see that everywhere you go," he said.
Since its start, the Lexington squad has grown to nine accredited bomb technicians. All of its members have other responsibilities in the department so it's not all about "cutting the red wire," as Roberts puts it.
Over the years, the unit has amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of technology, and the technology has advanced to the point where "We've got the capability ... we can go hands-on," Roberts said.
Ninety percent of the squad is federally funded, Roberts said. It applies to the state's Department of Homeland Security for federal grants every year, and the state has discretion over how they're distributed.
The equipment is costly, but necessary, Roberts said.
The unit has a number of devices it uses, including a $20,000 X-ray machine, a $25,000 bomb suit, a $5,000 bomb disruptor and a federally mandated robot, the unit's first purchase, which can cost anywhere from $100,00 to $150,000.
Lexington's first robot was purchased in 2003 from Remotec, a manufacturer in Clinton, Tenn.; its second joined the force in 2008.
The robots can be used in a variety of situations, including moving a suspicious device, Roberts said.
"We try to use it on every call," he said. "If we can evacuate the area and use the robotics, that is our preference. That is the highest level of safety for my men."
Since 2001 — when the big money first came out — those funds have "dwindled down to almost nothing," Roberts said, "so it's very competitive at this point." For example, around 2009, agencies across the state requested $60 million from a pool of $10 million.
When there have been budget cuts, the five Kentucky squads have found solutions by working together. For example, the units once submitted a joint grant for a total containment vessel, an orb of submarine steel that allows technicians to transport unstable explosives with minimal risk.
"We look for grants that are specific to our mission," he said. "We look at: What are our threats, what are our gaps and what can we do to fill in those gaps?"
Most calls, he said, don't grab headlines and attract public attention.
A common example, is the innocent discovery of old war relics or industry tools by a family member, said Joshua Breeze, a 18-year veteran of Lexington police.
"Grandpa passes away, cleaning out the closet or garage and — 'oh my goodness. Didn't know this was here,'" Breeze said.
Or Roberts said "Somebody has had a family member who's in the blasting industry, that person has passed on and they find old dynamite or blasting caps."
Those discoveries, although common, always require caution. Roberts said he's seen those devices both inert and still technically functioning.
"We don't want them to bring it to us," he said. "We've had that happen frequently, where people say, 'hey, I've got these blasting caps,' and they put them in their trunk and drive across town to the police station. Let us come to you."
Bomb technicians are eased into the program locally for about a year before heading to an "intense" six-week basic training certified by the FBI. Once completed, the techs must complete recurring, in-house training of two days a month and attend one 40-hour in-service specific to explosive response.
Roberts said learning the chemistry, physics, electronics and all other forces behind every hazardous materials is the "jack of all trades."
"It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of home time that they miss because they're away for training," Roberts said. "They do it because it's a vocation. It's not just a skill set. The guy's really get into it. You don't see a whole lot of old bomb techs who aren't good. They tend to weed themselves out early."