The fact that Deputy Phil Ross enjoys his job is not unusual. That he defuses bombs for a living does make his passion for work a little harder to understand.
Ross, 65, is part of Calaveras County´s hazardous materials team, cleaning up roadside spills of toxic substances as well as the chemicals and equipment found at drug labs. He´s also the “go-to” man when a bomb is discovered or some explosive materials need to be neutralized.
It´s an unusual calling, but Ross pointed out it´s also an exciting one. “There´s nothing nicer than to look at this device and wonder if it´s going to go off on you before you get to it,” Ross said. “I can´t explain it. The adrenaline is going so hard, your heart´s pounding so fast.”
Ross began his law enforcement career as a police officer in Atherton in 1964. He moved to the Santa Clara County Sheriff´s Office in 1970 then joined the Calaveras County Sheriff´s Department in 1976.
There was a short detour into another career as a truck driver in 1988. “The biggest mistake I ever made in my life,” Ross said of that move. “I wasn´t made to be gone three, four days a week.” He returned to law enforcement in 1990 as an officer with the Angels Camp Police Department, rejoining the local Sheriff´s Department a year later.
During his first tenure with the Calaveras County Sheriff´s Department, Ross attained the rank of sergeant and helped coordinate the county´s first SWAT team and canine corps.
He still talks fondly of his first four-footed partner. While having a dog in the patrol car with you could be a nuisance at times, Ross said the animal also came in handy when dealing with a belligerent motorist in the middle of the night. All Ross had to do was shine his flashlight on the 130-pound rottweiler in the patrol car, and that tended to subdue the driver´s anger.
Now Ross enjoys being a deputy, and working with dangerous chemicals and explosives, even though it means a lot of work.
Just climbing into the protective suit requires the help of two other people because it weighs 100 pounds. That doesn´t include the helmet, and the suit is only armored in front. “You never turn your back on a device,” Ross advised.
Hours are long. It´s not unusual for Ross to put in 80 to 100 hours of overtime in a two-week pay-period. That pretty much rules out time for other pursuits or hobbies, but Ross´s wife Susan understands his love for his job. “She says as long as I´m happy, she´s happy. And I´m very happy,” Ross said.
The county will soon get a remote-controlled robotic machine that can be wheeled up to a suspicious device for a closer look without putting any lives in danger.
Ross acknowledged it will make his job safer, but also take some of the fun out of it.
The impetus for getting the robot arose from one of Ross´s closest calls in recent years, disposing of some dynamite near Angels Camp last February.
The dynamite was old, “sweating” nitroglycerin and any little friction could have set it off. As Ross was removing a blasting cap from one of the sticks, it broke apart in his hands. Ross said he momentarily closed his eyes, then realized that wouldn´t do any good, so he proceeded with the disposal process.
At age 65, Ross entertains no thoughts of retirement. “As long as I can wake up in the morning and still enjoy what I´m doing, I´m going to work,” Ross said.
And it appears there´s no sign the enjoyment of defusing bombs and taking dynamite apart will diminish anytime soon. “I feel kind of guilty getting paid to do it,” he said.
Calaveras Enterprise story by Craig Koscho. For more Calaveras news, click:calaverasenterprise.com