Eli was trained by the FBI in a special facility in Alabama, spends all day on constant alert and works with a tight-knit squad of compatriots to ensure your safety. Despite all this, he is good-natured, great with people and doesn’t mind having his picture taken. But if you see Eli point — run.
Eli, a 6-year-old black lab, is Yale’s own bomb-sniffing dog and part of the New Haven Police Department-Yale Police Department joint bomb squad. The unit, one of only four in the state, responds to roughly 150 calls of suspicious packages in the New Haven area per year, said Lt. Michael Patten, who heads training and professional development for the YPD. The bomb squad is composed of several bomb technicians (the exact number cannot be divulged for safety reasons) and three dogs, and it represents New Haven’s line of defense against terrorist attacks.
“Most terrorists want to hit big targets like New York,” said YPD bomb technician Charles Hebron. “But hitting small-town America would do as much damage.” He added that domestic and foreign terrorists want to hit soft targets as opposed to major city or government sites, and that New Haven is a hub of several infrastructure and utilities systems on the East Coast.
Yale is also an attractive target for a terror threat, YPD bomb technician Joe Tempesta said. He pointed to the prevalence of foreign and domestic dignitaries as one reason a bomb or chemical attack might be lodged against the University.
“Yale has been a target, and Yale may be again. They’re out there,” he said.
The last time Yale suffered a terror attack was on May 21, 2003, when a pipe bomb exploded at the Yale Law School and damaged a classroom and lounge but left no one injured.
ASSEMBLING A SQUAD
It was this bombing as well as post-9/11 increased security pressure which precipitated Yale’s purchase of Eli in 2005, Patten said.
Although the Yale police force joined with the NHPD bomb squad over 20 years ago, he said, the YPD never owned its own dog until they obtained Eli. He added that along with Eli, Yale also hired Hebron, its first officer who was fully dedicated to the bomb squad.
Each member – and dog – of the squad was certified by the FBI at the Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Ala., NHPD bomb technician Jason Salgado said. In addition to this training, he added, each person also has at least 10 certifications, which include diffusing chemical and biological threats.
Although the name might suggest otherwise, the bomb squad is in charge of safeguarding New Haven from much more than bombs, Hebron said. The squad covers all chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats and is also part of an FBI taskforce to keep nuclear material out of Manhattan, he added.
Most calls that the bomb squad receive are for suspicious unattended packages, Salgado said.
But contrary to some of the complaints they receive, Salgado said, the squad is not called out for every unattended cardboard box.
If a suspicious package is found, he said, a supervisor comes out and evaluates the situation first. Salgado said the officers in the field “do a very good job of assessing” the credibility of a threat based on location and appearance.
But safety must come first for the bomb squad, Tempesta said, there is no room for error in their job.
Hebron said that when approaching a suspicious package, the squad will utilize a remote-controlled robot as well as an X-ray machine to assess the threat without every getting dangerously close.
When the situation does call for a bomb technician to go near an explosive device, he will wear a bomb suit, Tempesta said. This suit, which weighs about 85 pounds without extra equipment, is only armored in the front (so a technician needs to backpedal away from a bomb), he added.
THE K-9 COMPONENT
In addition to three robots, a blast-resistant suit, and a heavy response vehicle that can house the squad and its equipment on the way to a call, the squad’s most utilized tools are “The Killer E’s.”
Eliza, 2, and Edison, 3, both black labs, joined Eli in recent years to compose the K-9 component of the bomb squad. Their job is to find hidden explosives: During a sweep (before or during an important event for example) a dog and a bomb technician will scour an area, and if the dog picks up a scent it will sit, and then point to the threat. As soon as the threat is determined, the dog is pulled away from the scene.
“If the dog finds a device, he’s gone,” said Hebron.
Because this procedure is not obvious to most passersby, there is often confusion about whether or not the dog is working as it walks around and if it is okay to pet it, Hebron said.
Salgado said that when a dog is working, no one can touch him or her, but that the dogs are more than allowed to meet people when not on the job, as long as no one tries to feed them.
The dogs are never fed from a bowl or from strangers, he said. Instead, every time they receive food is from a technician’s hands after going through a training session. When at the squad’s base at the NHPD Police Academy, the technicians will hide several old ammunition shells in a full parking lot, and make the dogs find them for food.
Salgado said that he will also spend hours training his dog in a room with no explosives, just to get it used to not finding anything.
In addition to a daily training regimen, Salgado said, the NHPD-YPD dogs also go in for state-level training every three months, and take a state-administered recertification test every year.
But despite his extensive training, Eli is not perfect.
He flunked out of school at Guiding Eyes for the Blind because of his interest in wildlife, Hebron said.
“If he sees a squirrel, it’s on,” he said.
Although he has only been at the University for five years, Eli is already competing for prestige with Yale’s other dog.
He has met Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Lewis Black.