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Suited up for a blast



Published: Fri, August 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CANFIELD -- They looked like the offspring of a Teletubby mother and Darth Vader father.

Four candidates for the Youngstown Police Department Bomb Squad stood still as mannequins Thursday at the Canfield Fairgrounds while members of the unit dressed them in the 80-pound one-size-fits-all Kevlar suit.

As the temperature inched toward 90 degrees, the fiercely dense bulletproof material sure didn't breathe like cotton.

"You can be in it when it's 50 degrees outside and come out wet," said Detective Sgt. Joseph DeMatteo, unit commander. "We're usually in it 20 minutes, never longer than 30."

Beyond 30 minutes in the sweltering suit can cause serious physical distress, such as kidney failure, he said.

The suit, which uses Velcro closures for a snug fit, has a battery-powered ventilation system, but it really doesn't cool, said Detective Sgt. Douglas Bobovnyik. To add to the discomfort brought on by the weight of the suit, bomb squad technicians carry 40 pounds of equipment -- an X-ray machine and a water cannon device called a disrupter to use on explosives, he said.

Two new members needed: DeMatteo said his unit, which includes Bobovnyik, Sam Traficant and Lou Ciavarella, needs to add two members. Traficant will be retiring next year, and DeMatteo within the next few years.

The four bomb squad candidates -- Greg Miller, Colleen Lynch, John Patton and Bob DiMaiolo -- had to walk 100 yards, deposit their equipment on the ground, pick it up and walk back to the starting point. The four, all YPD officers, then had to stand in the blistering heat for 10 minutes.

Although the bomb suit can be rigged for radio communication, it wasn't used for the tests Thursday. Communicating meant shouts, head nods and hand signals.

"Can you hear us?" DeMatteo asked through the thick plastic face shield, once Miller was completely enclosed in the stifling gear.

"Not really," Miller's eyes answered.

"Any questions?" DeMatteo shouted.

Miller, his face already turning red, shook his head from side to side.

"Did you give a caution about the heat?" Police Chief Richard Lewis wondered from nearby. DeMatteo said he had, telling the officers to come out of the suit early if they couldn't take the heat.

The four candidates had loaded up on ice water before their ordeal.

Test time: As Miller, 27 and a three-year YPD veteran, headed off on what was likely the longest 200 yards of his life, DeMatteo, Ciavarella and Traficant trailed behind. They wanted to observe his movements in the suit and how he placed his feet on the pavement, which he couldn't see.

Because of the suit's high and wide protective collar, people wearing it can't merely look down to see something on the ground. They have to bend forward and lean over.

Ciavarella said tests in the suit often include bending down to pick up a quarter. Because the sense of touch is so important, bomb technicians wear no gloves.

Miller beamed when the time finally came to release him from the suit.

When Lynch, who gave a smile instead of her age, took her turn, the 80-pound suit appeared to swallow her up. She weighs 100 pounds.

"Colleen, where'd you go?" Traficant said from the sidelines.

Dave DeJoe, senior special agent for the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, moved in closer with a video camera as Lynch almost disappeared in the suit. DeJoe said he videotapes all tests for training purposes.

DeMatteo said the bomb squad and ATF recently formed a task force.

"You're in!" said the veteran bomb squad members who had strapped Lynch into the cumbersome suit. As she walked 100 yards down the road, she couldn't quite hear Traficant joke that her small feet in the big shoes reminded him of Bozo the clown.

After walking the 100 yards back, Lynch, a five-year YPD veteran, stood nonchalantly to wait until her 10 minutes were up. Her colleagues laughed as she lifted her right hand toward her mouth (behind the plastic face shield) and wiggled her index and middle fingers together -- the universal "Gimme a cigarette" gesture.

"Ah," she said a few minutes later when the heavy helmet was lifted off her head. Then she sat down for a cigarette break.

Patton, 39, stepped into the suit next, followed by DiMaiolo, 29. Patton has 11 years with YPD, and DiMaiolo has four years.

Making the decision: DeMatteo said 15 officers applied and, although he'd like to have all four finalists join the unit, only two can be added now. Lewis will decide.

DeMatteo said local screening, tests and an intensive FBI background check take nearly a year, and then bomb-squad technicians attend the FBI's five-week hazardous device school in Huntsville, Ala. Once assigned to the bomb squad, officers make a five-year commitment and must stay fit.

They recertify at the Huntsville school every three years.

"The bomb squad doesn't want to get caught without trained technicians," Lewis said of the need to add members now. "We respond to incidents in three counties -- two-thirds of the calls are outside the city."

meade@vindy.com




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