“We Need a Bomb Tech”: Integrating the Bomb Squad with SWAT

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Richard Klok


On the morning of April 20, 1999, two Columbine High School students in Littleton, Colorado, attacked their school with firearms and explosives.[1] The rampage lasted an hour, and the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, ultimately killed 12 students and one teacher. Before committing suicide, the shooters placed multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs) throughout the school. When SWAT teams entered the school, they were effectively stopped by the threat of the IEDs.[2] The local PSBSs on the scene, already aware of the presence of IEDs, were not integrated with the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams that entered the high school. Had bomb technicians been deployed with SWAT, they could have guided SWAT around the IEDs and more quickly rescued the students and faculty still inside the school. According to a case study published by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Columbine established the importance of cultivating a collaborative effort between law enforcement tactical teams and bomb experts for a joint response.[3] The collaboration problem between SWAT and PSBS resurfaced 20 years later in Orlando, Florida. The after-action report for the Pulse nightclub massacre criticized SWAT and bomb squad integration, just as the report for Columbine did.

This thesis asks how special weapons and tactics teams and bomb squads can better integrate to prepare for and respond to joint hazard responses, such as active shooter and domestic terrorist events where guns and bombs are present. This thesis hypothesizes that mutual trust between SWAT teams and public safety bomb squads (PSBSs) is largely and fatefully absent, especially in response to such critical incidents as domestic terrorism, where both disciplines are needed. Role ambiguity, minimal relationships, and a shortage of time spent working together can cause a lack of trust. This thesis explores the value of trust and its role in collaborative organizational efforts in crisis-response teams, specifically SWAT units and PSBSs.

Both the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board (NBSCAB) note the desirability for SWAT and PSBS to collaborate their response to complex joint hazards, such as domestic terrorism and active shooter incidents.[4] However, neither NTOA nor NBSCAB outline how to collaborate. A collaborative gap persists, yet SWAT and PSBS remain mostly unconnected, which begs the question of what exactly hinders integration. This thesis evaluates how to achieve that integration and examines the value of trust in a crisis with a focus on its distinct role in crisis response and management.

The comparison of SWAT and PSBS shows that there is often insufficient time for trust to develop between the two disciplines—all the more so if they are unfamiliar with each other in the first place. First of all, SWAT teams are individually trained, and this training widely varies, while PSBS are centrally trained at a single school that serves the entire nation. Because SWAT and PSBS do not train together initially, a SWAT operator’s or bomb technician’s career might not concentrate on integrated response operations. Furthermore, the equipment for SWAT and PSBS is dissimilar enough to cause integration problems, as traditional PSBS equipment is too bulky for SWAT applications. Also, SWAT and PSBS spend most of their training time focused on the missions they most commonly undertake—serving high-risk warrants versus recovering explosives and responding to suspicious packages, respectively. Aggravating the problem is the diffusion of SWAT teams in relation to PSBSs nationally, which five times more SWAT teams than PSBSs. Furthermore, differences in personality, group culture, and narratives promote distrust, which also hinders effective collaboration and integration. These factors promote what Warren Street calls “norms of non-involvement,” a failure or refusal to collaborate.[5]

A critical examination of trust has been well studied and researched, yet its role in emergency response is still in its infancy. The author’s research concludes that trust is indeed a vital component of crisis response. Even though it has been largely overlooked in practice, recent research suggests its potential value to first responders in how collaboration works or fails. Tangible components of trust include clarity of roles, knowledge transfer, and communication, but they are prone to distortion and distrust. The concept of a cross-functional team can, thus, apply to better integrating SWAT and PSBS. Such teams, composed of small groups from diverse specialized areas of an organization or profession, are boundary spanners.[6] A lack of boundary work and awareness, suggests Anderson, results in a “silo mentality,” yet a better understanding of boundary lines “is important in enhancing organizational resilience.”[7] If SWAT and PSBS had a clearer understanding of boundary-spanning tasks, they might have broken from the siloed response approach at Columbine.

This thesis presents actionable recommendations that can help socialize and cultivate mutual trust between SWAT and PSBS to improve their collaborative potential. By focusing on boundary-spanning activities, SWAT and PSBS can develop better boundary awareness and mutual trust. Five joint training examples are outlined in this thesis: robotic operation, explosive breaching, booby trap awareness, suicide bomber response, and special event planning and operations. Together, these activities constitute the major boundary-spanning activities between SWAT and PSBS that will help develop trust and collaboration before a crisis demands it. Confidence building, problem solving, and better role clarity and knowledge transfer will surely benefit. The reward is an increased overall response capability for both SWAT and PSBS. Hopefully, this thesis will build an interdependent relationship between the two specialties, better able to flourish in the threat environment this nation finds itself. Future research can explore whether the boundary-spanning activities presented in this thesis help cultivate trust and improve the collaborative efforts between a SWAT and PSBS enterprise.



[1] John R. Cashman, “The Massacre at Columbine High School,” in Emergency Response Handbook for Chemical and Biological Agents and Weapons, 2nd ed. (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008), 45–58, https://doi.org/10.1201/9781420052664.

[2] Susan Rosegrant, “The Shootings at Columbine High School: Responding to a New Kind of Terrorism: Sequel,” C16-01-1612.1 (Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2001).

[3] Rosegrant.

[4] National Tactical Officers Association, Tactical Response and Operations Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies (Colorado Springs: National Tactical Officers Association, 2018); National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board, National Guidelines for Bomb Technicians (Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016).

[5] Warren R. Street, “Brainstorming by Individuals, Coaching and Interacting Groups,” Journal of Applied Psychology 59, no. 4 (1974): 433–36, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0037273.

[6] Sheila Simsarian Webber, “Leadership and Trust Facilitating Cross-Functional Team Success,” Journal of Management Development 21, no. 3 (2002): 201–14, https://doi.org/10.1108/‌02621710210420273.

[7] Annika Andersson, “In Case of Emergency: Collaboration Exercises at the Boundaries between Emergency Service Organizations” (PhD diss., University West, 2016), 98, http://hv.diva-portal.org/smash/‌get/diva2:924967/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

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