Having a blast
ATF in town for explosion training

COVINGTON - When three bombs exploded and left a Covington apartment complex in tatters, the Covington Fire Department stood by and let it happen. In fact, the bombers were in town at the invitation of CFD Chief Don Floyd.

But not to worry, those setting the bombs and picking up the pieces afterward are the good guys - 24 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assigned throughout Georgia who gathered for a four-day Urban Post Blast Training seminar.

"We are cooperating with the ATF, and Covington will be observing and assisting them with the training," Floyd said Tuesday morning prior to the trainees converging on the former Willowbend townhouse complex, across from the new Wal-Mart shopping complex on Ga. Highway 142. "The owner (Ewing Southeast Realty) has given us the use of the property for as long as we need it for training until such time they have to demolish it to finish their construction."

The facilities will still be useful to firefighters and others for training, so Floyd invited the ATF to train its personnel in the complex, as well.

"This is one of the nicest places I've ever gotten to blow up," quipped ATF Atlanta field office Assistant Agent in Charge Scott Sweetow, who is in charge of the training.

Sweetow and his team of experts created three separate crime scenes using explosive devices that he said are commonly encountered overseas, as well as in the U.S.

"The third one replicates a device that was used in a very significant incident in the United States. It will be a good challenge for them," the agent said. "This is to train our own people to deal with threats that we see might be coming up on the horizon."

The agents will be divided into three teams and have been instructed to treat each scene as if they were assigned to investigate a bombing, including collecting and assessing evidence, identifying the type of device and explosive used, reconstructing the bomb and making use of the agency's mobile lab, as well as its canine team.

Also, each of the explosions was filmed, and agents will be looking at the film to determine how accurate their deductions actually are.

Also set to help the agents were the state's two ATF trained and certified explosives detection canines - "the best trained dogs in the world," officials said. Both were in Covington on Tuesday.

The Labs, the only breed the ATF uses, actually started their working careers as failures.

"They're rejects from the guide dog program (dogs specially trained to guide the blind) ... because guide dogs have to have a very mellow disposition, and we like more athletic dogs that are more curious," Sweetow explained, adding that he was formerly in charge of the ATF canine unit.

He said they trained the dogs using food reward methodology. In fact, the dogs only get to eat when they work, so 7-day-a-week training activities are the norm for canines and their handlers.

Sweetow also pointed out that not only can the dogs find bombs, they are just as skilled in finding minute traces of explosives, such as residue in spent shell casings. When two DeKalb police officers were recently gunned down, the ATF canines were out looking for gun residue evidence.

Sweetow said ATF agents upon graduating from their academy know more about explosives than any federal law enforcement agency, but it's important for them to continue with formalized training. Their agents specialize in all disciplines of fire and explosive investigation, assisting federal state and local officers across the U.S. and internationally.

Despite the fact that most of the bomb scares that local law enforcement agencies encounter come to naught, some very real and deadly bombings have happened in metro Atlanta. ATF agents were on the scene for such incidents as the Olympic Park bombing, the Sandy Springs abortion clinic and the Other Side Lounge.

They are also at the scene of other tragic events that are not criminal in nature but require investigation, such as the recent Fort Wentworth sugar refinery explosion and fire. Floyd pointed out that in 1984 the ATF assisted the CFD when an abandoned cotton mill was set ablaze in Covington.

"We're training to make sure in the state of Georgia we have our act together so that if something were to happen here, we'd be fully prepared for it," Sweetow said.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.