WALNUT CREEK -- Dressed in a $20,000 Explosive Ordinance Disposal suit, Jay Hill is a bulky, green, crime-fighting machine.
But in reality, Hill is less Amazing Hulk than Bruce Wayne.
Accompanied by the Walnut Creek Bomb Squad's four-foot-tall, 400-pound Andros F-6A -- a remotely controlled robot whose disrupter platform, cameras, microphones and speakers can maneuver through tight spaces and even mount stairs -- the 16-year veteran of the Walnut Creek Police Department takes on superhero capabilities.
As the sole bomb squad in Contra Costa -- a "shared resource throughout the county," police lieutenant Hill says -- the Walnut Creek unit gets called out once a week on average. Most calls involve known incendiary devices or suspicious packages. The team also provides tactical support for other departments' SWAT teams, as in the case of a suspect who had barricaded himself in a Pleasant Hill home in November 2011. In that incident, the squad's Talon -- a smaller, more portable robot that Hill says can be out of the truck and rolling in five minutes -- was able to enter the house, locate the suspect and communicate conditions to distant officers.
Naturally, maintaining a distance is vital.
"The objective is to put a robot in harm's way instead of a person," Hill says. "Better to blow up a garage, or even a $200,000 robot, than an officer."
Hill said former Walnut Creek police officer Dick Grossman (My former Roommate's girl friend) had a particular interest in bringing a bomb squad to the local department, and led that effort in the late 1990s. "He wrote all the grants, did all the legwork," Hill says.
Funded almost entirely by the State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative, the city's only costs are the regular salaries of the six technicians and one assistant who work part time on the squad.
"We don't employ extra officers or get hazard or specialty pay," Hill emphasizes.
With experience on the departments's SWAT team, where he learned tactical skills like using shields and making dynamic entries into buildings, Hill was promoted to a supervisory position in 2006, and had been the Bomb Squad's supervisor until his recent promotion to lieutenant. He remains a bomb squad technician.
Earning a technician's position on the squad requires a six-week session at Alabama's Redstone Arsenal, a hazardous devices training center that is a joint operation of the U.S. Army and the FBI.
"There are about 3,000 certified bomb technicians in the country," Hill says. "There's a waiting list to get in; more and more, they're asking departments to justify their squads."
On a typical call, the robots take X-rays and check for radiological or biological agents. Paramedics are summoned and given instructions in bomb suit removal. "It weighs 80 pounds and they have to know how to rip it off pretty quickly," Hill says.
Occasionally, a Percussion Actuated Neutralizer -- more commonly known as a "water cannon" -- is used to render a device inoperative.
"We don't like to move things unless we have to. We don't like to blow things up. We have a containment vehicle that can withstand a substantial detonation, and I know it has been used, but I've never had to use it in my six years," Hill reports.
The squad also has an official truck -- a far cry from the early days.
"We didn't have any robots, just a bomb suit and a converted bread truck, painted black, with 'Bomb Squad' on the side," Hill laughs.
His grin turns to growl when he talks about consequences for the almost-exclusively-male, often-narcotic-offending suspects who build bombs.
How come six months earlier Hill was arresting a Debra Cole 40 year old homeless woman with five pipe bombs with Commander Norman Wielsch now serving 14 years in Federal Prison who was arrested two weeks after finding a homeless woman with five pipe bombs?  Talk about weird?    

"The most common types are pipe bombs and homemade M80s or M1000s," Hill says.
Pyrotechnic explosive devices -- cardboard tubes filled with explosive powder and a fuse -- are commonly made by kids or people fascinated by fire. More dangerous pipe bombs tend to involve "devious people, like methamphetamine users," according to Hill.
"But all of these are felonies," he warns. "Making explosives, even for fun, or to blow up in a field ... kids don't realize the danger and that they are committing a felony."
Hill appreciates the specialized training he has received and plans to continue increasing officer safety through interagency demonstrations and presentations through out the county.