How realistic is Trigger Point? Bomb disposal experts weigh in

Vicky McClure
Vicky McClure plays explosives officer Lana Washington CREDIT: ITV

On Triggerpoint We had a current EOD adviser and police adviser on set but its always going to be dramatic licence and the need to tell a story in 60 minutes which will override any realism on these shows.

TV drama are not documentary’s. They need to have dramatic tension and none of the idle moments that form a large part of real working lives. If you want that watch 24 Hours in Police Custody. 🙂 Here are the views from former EOD experts on the show. (Not facebook or twitter experts) 😃

ITV’s bomb disposal drama Trigger Point looks to blow Line of Duty away. Not to mention – as seen in the literally explosive first episode – plenty of supporting characters and civilians.Written by Daniel Brierley and executive produced by LoD’s Jed Mercurio, Trigger Point is the latest pulse-pounding procedural that boasts plenty of grit and ultra-realism. But how real is it?In the story, Vicky McClure plays Lana Washington, a London Met explosives officer – or “Expo” – who’s called to makeshift bomb factory at a block of flats, where she discovers the first of several bombs.True to life, Washington and her Expo partner, Joel Nutkins – played by Adrian Lester – both served in Afghanistan. 

The Met’s real bomb squad is made up of ex-Army ATOs (Ammunition Technical Officers) who have typically 20 years’ experience and various technical qualifications. “It’s an extremely meticulous trade,” says Dr Kristian Gustafson, former War Studies lecturer at Sandhurst, ex-Canadian Army officer, and now deputy director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies.Devices like those seen in the show are difficult to make, with materials for “high explosives” hard to come by in the UK. “Tell me, where in this country do you order 20kg sacks of shaved aluminium?” says Dr Gustafson. But they are plausible.

Adrian Lester
Adrian Lester stars as Joel Nutkins in the first episode CREDIT: ITV

The first bomb, rigged to the flat’s toilet, has two triggers: a landmine-style pressure plate and the hallway light switch – cue McClure’s character almost detonating the device when she goes to turn the lights on.“It’s pretty Hollywood,” says Gustafson. “But not impossible. The knowledge to do that wouldn’t come from the kind of information you’d find online.

That’s coming from experience in Afghanistan, or someone trained by the Iranians in Yemen or something like that.”Lucy Lewis is former EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and was Britain’s first female bomb disposal officer. She explains that bombs using two triggers are actually “basic”, and praises the show for eschewing fanciful tropes. “I was delighted that they didn’t do the digital-clock-counting-down-to-detonation business,” she says. “And no discussion about cutting the red wire and the blue wire!”But Lewis says that a rookie mistake like flipping the light switch was a “spitting out tea moment”. Panicked, McClure’s character has to hold her finger steady on the switch while her partner deactivates the trigger.“Every soldier across the land will spit their tea out at that,” says Lewis, who now works as Cambridge University’s marshal – the head of the university’s private police force. “On day one you’re told to never touch anything. If she’s done even a week at bomb school, she’d know never to do that.”A real Expo would be less panicked, too. “You take a deep breath, compose yourself, and carry on,” says Lewis. “If you’ve served in Afghanistan, this is everyday bread-and-butter stuff. If you tread on a landmine you freeze.

We practice it so many times.”While the show’s two Expos tackle the device together, real bomb disposal officers go in solo. They take what’s called “the long walk” – a lonely journey to the live bomb. “Whatever needs to be done, they do it alone,” says Lewis. “Because it’s only one life at risk. They’d have a camera and people back in the van would be watching.”Lewis appreciates the show’s small, personal touches, such as Lester’s character having marriage problems. “They all say EOD stands for ‘everyone divorced,’” laughs Lewis. “We said it would be a gross representation of the trade if they didn’t have marital difficulties in there. It’s a tight pressure thing. You have to focus, you can become very detached, and you try not to look at a photo of your wife and kids before you go on that long walk. That doesn’t help your mental state.”

Eric Shango
Eric Shango co-stars as rookie Danny CREDIT: ITV

Other small details include Washington having her blood type displayed on her arm, and both the Expos having Felix the Cat tattoos. “Felix means lucky,” says Lewis. “He has nine lives. Felix is the symbol of counter-terrorism bomb disposal.”Both Lewis and Dr Gustafson credit the show’s use of real-life technology, including a small tripod-like a disruptor device, which uses sand to disable the toilet bomb. Later – at the site of a suspected car bomb – they send in a Short Circuit-like robot, known as a Wheelbarrow. “If there’s a device that they’re not convinced they can diffuse,” says Gustafson, “they’ll try and disrupt one component within the battery, initiator, explosive, trigger circuit.

They do that with a little cannon that blasts a bullet of water.”As Gustafson says, Trigger Point also shows the search-and-diffuse process as being a “multi-hour event” – lots of hanging around and waiting. “It’s also good at showing the layers of police control,” says Gustafson. “Gold Commander, outer cordon, inner cordon.”There’s some dramatic licence as the Expos, SO15 (counter terrorism), and CTSFO (counter-terrorism specialist firearms officers) jostle for jurisdiction and superiority.Simon Harding is a former DCI in SO15 and now the director of Specialist Crime Consulting Group. He recalls working with bomb squad to deal with suspicious packages – even an unexploded Second World War bomb that once dredged up from the Thames close to Parliament.“There is a relationship,” Harding says about the Expos and SO15. “Bomb disposal is almost part of SO15, but sits as a silo outside of it.

Everyone has a job to do. There’s no room for egos with that kind of stuff. It’s a world-renowned slick operation.”The first episode’s big set-piece comes when they discover an innocent man strapped with a suicide vest. The explosive is rigged with mobile phones, which allows it to be set off remotely. It seems the stuff of Hollywood fantasy – one tick away from Speed’s gold watch-powered bomb on the bus – but it’s real. Dr Gustafson recalls that in Afghanistan, Casio watches were commonly used as timers, and mobile phones were indeed used for initiation.

The officers are accompanied by a Short Circuit-like robot, known as a Wheelbarrow
The officers are accompanied by a Short Circuit-like robot, known as a Wheelbarrow CREDIT: ITV

Lucy Lewis, however, doubts the professional credentials of the show’s bomb makers. “It’s very amateurish to use a whole phone,” Lewis says. “You only need a sim card.”Trigger Point uses another piece of real-life tech to suppress the phone signals – an ECM (electronic countermeasures). In the show, it looks like a wireless router.

 In real life they’re much bigger – backpack-like devices with large antennae – but also highly classified.“If you see images of patrols in Afghanistan, you’ll see someone carrying a big backpack with an antenna on it,” says Gustafson. “Those are electronic countermeasures. Pretty much anywhere a British patrol went in Iraq or Afghanistan, it had a big mobile phone suppressing bubble around it.

Anywhere an ATO would go now, they would probably have those countermeasure bubbles.”Unlike real life, however, Trigger Point’s terrorists are able to bypass the ECM. A call comes through to the mobile phone anyway.The experts agree that the terrorists’ methodology is scarily true to life. The toilet bomb and suicide vest are just a distraction – a much bigger bomb is hidden in a van nearby. “The idea of having a small charge to draw you in, then killing everyone with the big one… that is very realistic,” says Lewis.

Cal Machaninch
Cal Machaninch as Lee Robbins SCO-19 CREDIT: ITV

The IRA used such tactics – planting a bomb, alerting the authorities, then waiting to see how they reacted. “The IRA gave you one bomb then put another one where they thought we’d put the cordons and RVPs [rendevouz positions],” says Simon Harding.Adrian Lester’s character suspects as much, wondering if the first bomb was a “come on” to lure them in. (Even the term “come on,” says Gustafson, is legitimate army talk. “The writers have spoken to ATOs,” he says. “Clearly, they’ve done their research.”)Lucky for us, the show’s yet-to-be-identified bombers are a very rare breed. “The kind of people that get radicalised to blow stuff up tend to not be the brightest,” says Gustafson. “But to build a bomb properly you need to be pretty clever! Those two factors tend to keep anything other than rudimentary devices from being built.”The kind of domestic bomb factories seen in the show are also rare. “The last time I remember the term ‘bomb factory’ being used was in the Nineties with the IRA,” says Harding.Overall, Dr Gustafson rates Trigger Point for being well researched and notes that it jettisons the less pulse-pounding aspects of the job – reports, weapons intelligence, and science lab work.“If you went into the nitty gritty of the devices we faced in Afghanistan, it gets quite technical and boring,” he says. “Making a device safe is not great action – it’s the stuff of puckered sphincters and sweat