Omaha police gain $65K high-tech X-ray machine to quickly size up suspicious bags -
Published Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:16 am
Omaha police gain $65K high-tech X-ray machine to quickly size up suspicious bags

At last summer's College World Series, fans were paying closer attention than ever — but not to the action on the field.

Two months after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, attendees at one of Omaha's biggest events put in more calls than usual to police about bags, backpacks and anything else that looked abandoned, out of place or suspicious around TD Ameritrade Park.

And for the first time, Omaha police were able to assess the situation on the spot, without having to call in the full bomb squad. For the CWS, the police were using a high-tech X-ray machine borrowed from an Iowa law enforcement agency.

But now, with the help of a state terrorism prevention grant, Omaha is getting one of its own. The money will come out of this year's allocation from the State Homeland Security Grant program, approved this week by the Omaha City Council.

Law enforcement and fire agencies in Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties are set to receive $413,705 for a variety of preparedness projects. Other expenses include funding for a part-time terrorism analyst position at the Omaha Police Department, trailers for a large-scale emergency medical event and parts for air quality monitors used at hazardous materials incidents.

The $65,000 Open Vision X-Ray machine is placed over a bag or box that looks suspicious. With the same X-ray technology a doctor would use to look at a broken arm, the arch-shaped device looks inside the bag. Then, in real time, it displays its findings on a screen held by an operator.

“We would bring this device up there and in a matter of seconds, we could say: 'Oh, it's clothes in a bag,' ” said Lt. Tom Shaffer, the Omaha Police Department's emergency response unit commander.

That's a big change from the way things worked in the past. If police got a call about something suspicious, they'd send in the bomb squad truck. Then, they'd bring over different equipment, scan the bag, haul the equipment back to the truck and process the X-ray.

Depending on the location, the time saved by the new device might be a matter of a few minutes. But at an event with thousands of people or at a hard-to-reach location, the machine can make a considerable difference.

“If you think about going into a high-rise building and going 30 stories up — the convenience of having this thing is the real time and quickness,” Shaffer said.

If police have more reason for concern, the machine can be hooked up to a robot and operated remotely.

In the grant application, officials noted that the Boston bombings have made the need for this type of technology clear. But Shaffer said the department was working on getting the Open Vision X-ray long before that event.

He said no other local agencies have any similar equipment, and the machine will be available for use on calls around the three counties.

While the machine will make it easier for police to respond to a call without attracting attention, Shaffer said it seems that people have actually become more open to seeing the bomb squad at big events like the College World Series. This year, he said police made a point of making laps around the stadium with bomb-sniffing dogs, something they haven't done in the past.

“I know the bomb unit was just as vigilant before Boston and after Boston,” he said. “The difference is the public has been way more accepting of us being vigilant publicly.”

Contact the writer: Erin Golden    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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