Rescuers ready for ‘dirty bomb?’
By Hil Anderson
LOS ANGELES: A small radiation detector should be made standard equipment on fire engines, ambulances and police cars and should be strictly monitored while responding to reported explosions, a panel of radiation experts said Saturday.
The recent arrest of a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist who allegedly was involved in a possible plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States has given a new urgency to the question of how emergency personnel should respond to a potentially deadly radiation release in an urban area.
Although scenarios of such an event were being explored well before Sept. 11, the release of radioactive shrapnel by a conventional bomb will likely tax the courage of emergency personnel, city officials and the general public as never before.
“If I have a dirty bomb,” Jonathan Links, a radiation specialist who has been involved in the city of Baltimore’s planning for a terrorist attack, told an audience at the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. “I have the usual explosion issues — shock effects, fire, debris — plus the radiation issues of site contamination and dispersal of radioactive material beyond the site of the explosion.”
Some analysts have called dirty bombs the ultimate terrorist weapons because radiation is invisible to the human senses, and can only be found by using Geiger counters or other detection devices.
“Having a Geiger counter — or some other advanced detection system — on an emergency vehicle that can be deployed easily is a great idea with today’s concerns about dirty weapon terrorism,” Dr. Mark DeSantis, a board certified osteopathic physician specializing in Nuclear radiology and a medical officer with the Office of Emergency Preparedness, told UPI.
“Having radioactivity present at a fire or explosion elevates the emergent care of victims at the scene — including the emergency personnel themselves. Of course, rapidly knowing what type of radiation is present and the quantity of radioactivity is most important since simple medical isotopes with short half lives may not endanger the victims to any great degree.”
DeSantis, a scientific abstract presenter at the meeting who also works for the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office in forensic radiology, added, “Fire does not affect radioactive elements but may spread the elements over a greater area due to fallout from the air pressures created by the fire itself.”
Emergency services officials around the nation say they have the technology and know-how to deal with the effects of a dirty bomb, but the expertise tends to be clustered at the top of the food chain with specialized rescue units and federal response teams.
These highly trained individuals and their specialized gear may very well be the last to arrive, well behind the cop on the beat and the engine company from the fire station a few blocks away — not to mention Good Samaritan citizens, journalists and camera crews from local television stations.
That’s where the radiation detectors discussed at the Society of Nuclear Medicine annual meeting in Los Angeles come in.
“You have an explosion, and you don’t have the faintest idea if that explosion is a dirty bomb or a more conventional explosive event,” Links said. “The first responders are going to be the usual first responders. Just because we are worried about dirty bombs, doesn’t mean that is going to change.”
Links said that emergency vehicles should all have as standard equipment a small $225 detection device that will alert the occupants arriving at the scene that they have entered a radioactive area.
While most people’s first instinct would be an immediate u-turn, the detectors would actually let rescuers know if the radiation was at a level that was low enough to allow them to continue on and assist the injured and douse the fire or stay out of the area.
“They should be calling immediately for (expert) backup assistance and set up controlled access,” declared Eric Kearsley, who was a consultant on a recent Department of Energy report on responses to a nuclear terrorist attack. “It may not be an immediate life-threatening environment, as long as they don’t stay in that area for an extended period.” The peculiar nature of a dirty bomb blast also presents law enforcement investigators with a dilemma.
“From the point of view of law enforcement, this is a crime scene, and a crime scene that is complicated by long-term contamination,” observed Kearsley.
The clash of priorities and duties is bound to occur in a nuclear emergency as the federal anti-terrorism crowd that is responsible for investigating the incident bumps heads with the locals who are responsible for cleaning up, helping the injured and keeping the public’s jitters and worries from degenerating into a full-scale panic situation.
Link’s advice is to avoid downplaying the incident, dishing out spin, or “no comments,” and get accurate information out as soon as possible.
“Folks in large metropolitan areas are going to know very quickly that something is up,” he said.
The gathered nuclear medicine specialists at Saturday’s event were keen to discuss the preparation specifics for a dirty bomb attack and were asking for lists of the makes and models that should be purchased with their beefed-up budgets since Sept. 11, since there are now funds to stock up on radiation detectors and other equipment that are much higher on the priority lists of city hall’s across the nation. —UPI