Common Council votes to update Syracuse Police Department’s bomb robot

Although this past weekend’s terrorist attacks on Paris and Beirut led to major cities around the world on high alert, the small city of Syracuse has also been wary of possible attacks.

Last Monday, Syracuse’s Common Council voted unanimously to purchase a Power Hawk Non Energetic Remote Access Tool, or NERAT, to use as part of the Syracuse Police Department’s bomb robot. Common Councilor-At-Large and chairperson of the Council’s public safety division, Pamela Hunter, said the main component of this is an updated version of the police department’s current bomb robot.

“What would make this robot different is that it has the ‘jaws of life’ on it,” she said. “And so this would be able to pry open some sort of container or something that the current one they have right now doesn’t have what they call the ‘jaws of life’ on it.”

The updated bomb robot costs no more than $34,495, and is also able to pick items up and move them.

However, Majority Whip Councilor Jake Barrett noted that the money the police department applies for is usually in response to money that is already available. Although the Council would usually need to match a payment purchase, since this money was already set aside for security related issues, it’s essentially free.

“The Department of Homeland Security has made some money available to certain municipalities to have equipment on hand in the event of a terrorist activity such as a bomb threat,” Barrett said. “So you apply for it and you get it. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”

Aside from the robot, the police department usually takes other precautionary measures in the case of a bomb threat, such as bomb sniffing dogs and a bomb squad, according to police department spokesman Sgt. Richard Helterline.

Although Helterline could not share the exact details of the police’s usual response to a bomb threat, he said it usually would include sending in police dogs to respond to the threat and check if it’s legitimate, followed by police officers that are called to the scene. This would be different with the updated bomb robot.

“Say a dog went through and sensed a bag that no one was familiar with, we would pull everybody out and we would use the robot so that it wouldn’t endanger any officers or people’s lives,” Helterline said.

Barrett, who was part of the unanimous vote for this new purchase, noted the shortcomings of the robot’s technology in today’s day and age.

“Today’s terrorism, they don’t care. They have a vest strapped on to their waist, and there’s no amount of sniffing, etc., that is going to stop this guy from pulling a zip cord,” Barrett said. “So this equipment our police department is applying for—we’re fighting a war of 30 years ago; war has changed.”

Instead, Barrett suggests “intelligence on the ground.”

Helterline, however, said other forms of security to stop a bomb from happening depend on the actual location since each building’s security standards are different and usually decided by the building’s owner. Which is why the police department also relies heavily on people’s tips.

“If you see something strange, report it,” he said. “We’d rather be safe than sorry. So if anything seems out of place or somebody’s acting strange, we would hope that people would call in before we have an issue.”

Syracuse has not had an actual bomb explosion in its recent history, although there have been threats made in the city of Syracuse and at Syracuse University.

In September, police responded to a false bomb threat on the downtown city courts, forcing the evacuation of everyone in the buildings. While in 2013, SU received a bomb threat through an anonymous social application, Yik Yak, regarding a possible bomb threat in a residence hall, according to Hannah Warren, the Department of Public Safety’s public information officer.

Although the bomb threats have been rare, Hunter, Barrett, Helterline, and Common Councilor Bob Dougherty, all agree this tool is still an important safety measure.

“They’ve identified something that they feel is useful for them to keep them safe, and it’s a tool in their toolbox,” Hunter said. “So they live it, they work it everyday, they know what they need as far as tools. They have identified this as being something useful they need, obviously that’s where we’re going to make that happen.”

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