Equipping Fire and Hazmat Teams for Effective Radiation Response

fire industry today Scott Masiella

In small towns and large cities alike, fire crews, hazmat teams, and other emergency personnel are often first on the scene where radiation could be present. Frequently, they are walking into extremely dangerous situations without knowing how much or what type of radiation is present.

These first responders must be able to identify potential radiation risks and then determine the source quickly and accurately to implement a proper safety plan. Emergency personnel responding to an accident need answers to several questions. First, “Is there radiation present?” If the answer is yes, they immediately need to ask, “What type of radiation is it, and how long is it safe to stay at the accident site?” The answers to these questions can impact health and safety, and innovative technology is essential to enable them to protect themselves and the public.

Potential Scenarios, Real Risks

A truck rolls along an interstate on its way to a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility. As it passes through a small town, a dangerous thunderstorm hits, and the truck overturns. The driver is unconscious. The containment system is damaged. First responders from the small county fire department race to the scene.

A fire starts in a hospital. A fast-responding fire unit is unaware of an X-ray machine or less obvious radiation or irradiation source nearby.

In both situations, critical questions with serious ramifications must be answered quickly and reliably.

In the case of the overturned truck, are the emergency response personnel equipped with the proper tools to quickly and reliably determine what type and quantity of hazardous waste material the truck is carrying, how best to clean it up, and how to establish an appropriate safety perimeter? If the answers are no, this scenario may lead to serious consequences—for the unconscious driver, the emergency response unit, and an unknown number of other potentially affected individuals.

In the case of the hospital fire, responders are equipped with a multigas detector to determine what personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed, but do they have the right technology to quickly detect radiation? Further, can they determine the source and whether the containment system has been compromised? Can they accurately verify the isotope, establish an appropriate safety perimeter, and determine how long they can stay there safely? If radiation is exposed and continues to disperse while crews have to wait for a bomb squad with the proper equipment, the threat to health and life may be significant.

The newest handheld personal radiation detectors (PRDs) can detect radiation, identify the class of radioactive agent, and identify the actual isotope present to provide quick and accurate answers. These analytical devices are highly sensitive and accurate, combining both gamma and neutron detection. Advanced technology can analyze the radiation field and immediately differentiate between artificial and natural radiation, eliminating nuisance alarms that can be generated by nonthreatening radiation sources. Certain PRDs are also ATEX-certified as “intrinsically safe” for use in and around flammable and potentially explosive atmospheres.

Detection Capability Alone Provides Insufficient Protection

Once first responders know that radiation is present and that the type requires further investigation, they need to quickly identify the source and the actual isotope, measure the amount, and determine how long they can stay in the area safely before hitting the radiological dose.

Today’s technology can not only detect the radiation source and distinguish between benign and potentially threatening radiation but also identify the specific isotope and capture the dose rate—all with the same handheld instrument. Most such instruments use reference dose rates that are accurate only to within ±40 to 50 percent at a single point on the gamma ray energy spectrum, so if it reads 1 rem (Roentgen equivalent man) per hour, the team can’t confidently remain at the accident site safely for longer than 30 to 36 minutes. The most advanced technology, however, uses calibrated dose rates that are accurate to within ±20 percent across the entire energy spectrum, so if the instrument reads 1 rem per hour, emergency response personnel can have a high degree of confidence that it’s safe to stay for 48 minutes. And in dangerous situations, 12 to 18 extra minutes per hour may make all the difference.

Grants Can Help

Many fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and other sources of emergency personnel face budget constraints. But, they can’t afford not to arm their emergency response personnel with the tools they need to protect themselves and the public. Fortunately, grants are an important source of supplemental funding for emergency response equipment. Departments should consult the various resources for learning about what grants are available and how to apply for them.

The Risks of Being Unprepared

If a truck overturns, spilling hazardous waste that contains threatening radioactive material, and first responders are ill-equipped to proactively and rapidly handle the next steps, serious consequences may be experienced at a significant radius from the accident scene. In fact, individuals in the vicinity may not immediately realize the risk of radiation exposure. The same consequences could result if a hospital fire breaks out in a room adjacent to a radiation source and the first responders lack the necessary technology to identify and respond appropriately to that potential radiation threat.

All first response units, regardless of the size of the community or size of the fire and hazmat teams, need to be equipped in the right way. They need the tools to quickly and accurately detect radiation, identify the source and type, and implement an effective response plan. This technology is essential to safeguarding those front-line personnel and the public they protect.

SCOTT MASIELLA is the global safety and security market manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific. He manages the product roadmap and new technology direction for Thermo Fisher’s field and safety instruments business. Masiella has nearly a decade of experience working with law enforcement and fire departments globally to solve radiological and nuclear detection and identification problems.

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