Terry Blackmore: fighting terror with my dog
“When you go into a bomb scene, it’s always quiet. The only thing you’ll hear will be a pigeon flying around or something like that.”
Terry Blackmore is a 75-year-old bomb expert. He’s worked with dogs his entire life but, in this so-called ‘climate of terror’, their aptitude for locating explosive devices might best be utilised now.
“My job is to look after people,” he tells me, “if somebody wants to go to an event, I’m asked to go into that event and make sure there’s nothing that people should be frightened of.”
Terry was born in wartime Britain into the comparative safety of an evacuee lifestyle in Yorkshire in 1941. His accent might better be suited to Albert Square, though, having lived in Kent for most of his life. Terry is a commanding presence and an expert storyteller; as soon as he begins telling me about the 1996 Docklands bombing, I’m instantly engrossed.
As soon as he’s finished, he’s onto the next story. This time we’re at a bomb scene in Paddington.
“A senior officer tells me the bomb’s gone off, but to go in and make sure there’s nothing else in there, so I went in with the dog, searched round this flat, came out and said no, there’s no device in there. Then he went in. He came out smiling and said ‘did you see the body?’ I said no. He said ‘go and have another look, so I did but couldn’t find a body. He came in with me and said ‘you can’t see the body?’ I said no. He said ‘look up’. The terrorist had blown himself up and was actually embedded in the ceiling. He was looking down on us. All burnt and everything.”
Terry tells shocking stories like this one with ease, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to see some of the things that he’s seen.
“People wonder why policemen have got a different sense of humour to them,” the septuagenarian tells me by way of explanation.
He does, however, insist that the job can be as funny as it is exhilarating. His sense of humour is as present as ever.
“You do get funny parts,” he tells me. “Every day we used to have to go and search the Houses of Parliament. The MPs aren’t supposed to come in when you’re doing the search, for obvious reasons, but some people are full of their own importance. I was searching with my dog, who was a big yellow Labrador, and this MP walked in with his two boys. They were only eight or nine years old.”
At this point, Terry sits up straight as he mimics the posh accent of the MPs child. “Ooh Daddy! There’s a dog!” I laughed. “The MP said to his son ‘These dogs come in here and they can allegedly find bombs, but I don’t know how good they are.’ Of course, I hear him saying this, so as I finished, I called the dog back and I said to him ‘Really?’ And the little boy’s saying ‘What’s he doing, Daddy?’ I said to the dog ‘Are you sure?’ I turned to the MP and said ‘He’s just told me you’ve had lunch’. ‘We have! Daddy! We have!’ says the little boy. The MP says ‘Perhaps he could tell you what we had.’ So I looked at the dog and said ‘Really?’ I looked at the MP and said ‘Fish and chips.’ The little boy said ‘Daddy! He’s right!’ The MP says ‘Well if he’s that good, perhaps he could tell me what fish we had’. I leaned down to the dog, looked up and said ‘Cod’. And I walked out. The little boy said ‘How did he do that?’ Later on, my mate asked me ‘How did you do that?’ I said it’s Friday and I looked at the menu before I went in there.”
Security dogs have, quite clearly, stood the test of time. Terry tells me they’re better than machines. It’s fascinating to consider the endurance and (for want of a better word) the doggedness of their skill. I wonder just how they have managed to surpass technology.
“They can scan one hundred, two hundred people, whereas with a machine you would have to get a person to empty their pockets and walk through the machine. If something goes off they have to go through the machine again.”
As unassuming a task as this might sound, finding the right dog for the job is not easy. “You can look at, say, twenty dogs, and one or two out of that twenty might make it all the way through the selection phases.”
I ask Terry what the selection process entails and I am surprised by the extensive list I am given.
“We test for temperament, we test for nerves, we test for their fitness, their veterinary liability, we test for what they’re like in crowds, what they’re like with people, and their drive. We’ve got to have a dog that would crash through anything to get their object. If we’ve got a dog that falls down on any of those, then we can’t have it.”
Once the right dog has been selected, the tests are far from over. “Every year, we have to be licenced,” Terry explains, “so we’ll have to go to, say, a football stadium where an ACPO instructor (Association of Chief Police Officers) will come and put out a test for us. It won’t be loads of explosives. The last time my dog, Jet, was licenced, he had to find five grams of explosives in a football stadium. That’s the sort of training we do. Our dogs are trained to exactly the same standards as police dogs. And that’s the only standard to be at, really.”
I ask Terry more about Jet, the Labrador he’s had for four years. “Jet is a Drakeshead Labrador. Drakeshead are one of the foremost breeds of Labradors in the country. He started his training from the age of six weeks old. His temperament is absolutely sound, he’s brilliant in crowds, doesn’t worry about noises. He’ll work all day and he’s one of these dogs that doesn’t give up. If you send him into an area to find something, he won’t give up until he’s either found it or decided that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Jet is as attractive as a domestic dog. His fine, black fur sheens when hit by light, and his wide eyes are as endearing as any human baby’s. It is, therefore, unusual to consider the crucial role he plays in the security profession. Jet literally sniffs out danger.
An average day for the Labrador might see him patrolling the main entrance to the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, the annual horticulture event frequented by actors, socialites and even royalty. At risk of sounding a little dramatic, it would be fair to say that their lives are in Jet’s paws.
The service that Terry and Jet provide is invisible; we only know that a threat exists when there is no security around. Who knows how many times London could have been under threat were it not for people like Terry utilising dogs like Jet. The recent attack on Westminster Bridge underscores the reality of the danger we face as a Western country. Terry’s determination to eliminate the terror threat from the events he polices is only emphasised by his insistence that “my dog can detect any explosives that we know of.”
People feel a lot safer with Terry Blackmore around.