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5 things firefighters need to know about radiation

A radiation expert breaks down what firefighters need to know about radiological threats in order to avoid unnecessary fears while on scene


By Sarah Calams for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Sponsored by Mirion Technologies

The word "radiation" can evoke fear, even for first responders.

With appropriate precautions, first responders need not worry about treating and transporting patients with possible radiation exposure. (image/iStock)
With appropriate precautions, first responders need not worry about treating and transporting patients with possible radiation exposure. (image/iStock)

When faced with chemical, biological or radiological threats, a post-9/11 survey found that responders were largely concerned about protecting response personnel and their ability to decontaminate victims. Moreover, organizations cited that they received limited training for these potential threats.

Dr. Andrew Karam, Homeland Security Scientific Advisor for Mirion Technologies, a company that provides nuclear measurement and detection systems, has dedicated his career to teaching others about radiation safety. Karam started his career in the U.S. Navy's Nuclear Power Program in 1981 and began working in radiation safety after leaving the Navy.

Dr. Karam later worked for the New York City Health Department, where he directed radiation/nuclear emergency response planning efforts. He worked with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as well as the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), helping develop radiation/nuclear response procedures and policies. Throughout his career, Dr. Karam has stressed to first responders that they do not need to be afraid of victims who may have been exposed to radiation.

"Victims have been delayed getting the treatment that they really needed and suffered unnecessarily because responders were scared of the contamination," Dr. Karam said. "You want to do what you can to keep yourself from getting contaminated, but if every second counts, you don't necessarily have to decontaminate them in order to save their life."

And if you do become contaminated, Dr. Karam says responders already know how to take care of it – they just might not realize it.

"The analogy I often use is – if you're changing a diaper, you don't want to get it on you. But if you do, you just wash your hands and go on with your day. It's the same with nearly all types of radioactive contamination – you can clean up with soap and water."

This common misconception, Dr. Karam says, can lead to unnecessary fear. For firefighters who are worried about responding to radiological threats, here are five important things you need to know about radiation.

1. Identify potential radiological threats before arriving on scene.

Firefighters are always preparing for different emergency response scenarios. A radiological threat should be no different.

Common calls or scenarios involving potential radiation threats can include:

  • University "hot labs"
  • Blood banks
  • Private research laboratories
  • Hospital nuclear medicine departments
  • Radiation oncology clinics
  • Local or regional commercial nuclear pharmacies
  • Commercial sterilization facilities
  • Industrial radiography firms
  • Geotechnical consulting firms
  • Well-logging sources

And, don't forget about vehicles that might be on the road transporting potential threats.

"If a vehicle transporting radioactive material is involved in a traffic accident, then there could be radiological issues to take into account at the accident site," Dr. Karam said.

2. Follow basic radiation safety practices while on scene of a threat.

There are always possible risks firefighters need to be aware of while on scene of a radiological threat.

For example, to avoid skin burns, firefighters must remember to never pick up a radioactive source with their bare hands.

"If they see a loose source, the best thing they can do is to fall back about 100 yards or so, establish a perimeter and call for someone with a radiation detector," Karam said. "Let others who are trained for that sort of work take care of the source."

As far as potential health effects, taking universal precautions will keep firefighters safe from radiation.

"Follow the standard precautions you would for any other patient," Karam said. "The best example of this is the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian who was poisoned with radioactive polonium. Polonium is notoriously mobile and spreads quickly."

When Litvinenko was transported to a hospital, no one knew he had been poisoned with polonium. In fact, it took three weeks before officials realized he had been shedding polonium.

"In spite of that, no one in the hospital had a significant uptake of polonium and that's because they took the same precautions that they would take of any other patient," Dr. Karam said.

3. Minimize the amount of time spent in a radiation field.

In order to reduce dose rate, which drops by the square of the distance to the source, Dr. Karam says it's imperative for responders to maximize distance from any sources of radiation.

"At a dose of about 25 rem, blood cell counts will start to drop after a week or so but the person won't feel bad from it," he said. "At about 100 rem, they will start to feel ill but this might not show up for a few weeks (or longer) after the exposure. A dose of 400 to 500 rem has a 50 percent chance of being fatal in the absence of medical treatment. With the best medical care, that increases to about 700 to 800 rem. And a dose of 1000 rem received in a day or less will invariably be fatal."

To avoid this scenario, shielding needs to be kept between firefighters and the source of radiation, Dr. Karam said.

"Shielding can be anything," he said. "It doesn't have to be lead. Four inches of masonry or concrete, six inches of soil or a foot of water all give the same dose reduction as one inch of lead."

4. Wear necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep from becoming contaminated.

Alpha radiation, Karam says, cannot penetrate the skin as long as the skin is intact.

"The only PPE needed for alpha radioactivity is respiratory protection to keep from inhaling the stuff, covering open cuts or wounds to keep it out of the blood and general PPE to keep the skin from becoming contaminated," he said.

Beta radiation, which is less damaging, can penetrate about a half-inch into skin tissue.

"Normal firefighter bunker gear will protect against external beta radiation and respiratory protection to keep it out of the lungs," he said.

Unfortunately, there is no PPE for gamma radiation.

"It is not practical to ask firefighters to wear an inch of lead in addition to their already heavy gear," Dr. Karam said. "For situations where gamma radiation is present, wear work clothes to keep the skin from becoming contaminated, use respiratory protection to keep it out of the lungs and good work practices (time, distance and shielding) should minimize gamma radiation exposure."

5. Use the correct radiation measurement tool.

In order to choose the right tool, Dr. Karam said it all depends on what firefighters are trying to do and what questions they're trying to answer, such as:

  • How much radiation dose did I receive?
  • Is it safe to be here now, and how long can I work in this area?
  • What radionuclides are present?

For example, when Dr. Karam was with the NYPD, he used the Mirion Instadose dosimeter.

"The Mirion MBD-2 device is the dosimeter that I wish we had been able to use," he said.  The MBD-2 serves as both a dosimeter at any given moment, and provides a readout of the accumulated dose.  “In addition, the Mirion UltraRadiac-Plus (URAD+) measures total radiation dose and dose rate."

Most personal radiation detectors (PRDs), Dr. Karam said, only accurately measure one radionuclide. "If firefighters are exposed to any other radionuclide, those instruments will give erroneous readings, while the Mirion URAD+ gives very accurate readings for multiple radionuclides," he said.

For a device that will accurately measure radiation dose rate, Dr. Karam says the URAD+ is an appropriate tool to use.

In addition to the dose received, it is important to know what specific source is generating the radiation."Mirion has a bunch of radio-isotopic identifiers," Karam said. "The identifier I like the best is the SPIR-Ace device – it has a large nuclide library, one of the fastest ID times out there and it has a cellphone-style display with a number of screens to give different ways to look at the data."

If all radionuclides are properly identified, and the dose for an area is properly identified, then firefighters will be able to choose and wear the necessary PPE while on scene.

Radiation exposure preparedness

Responding to radioactive threats may be uncharted territory for some fire departments.

By acknowledging and understanding the nature of the threat, fire departments will be able to overcome the initial fear and provide appropriate first aid and medical care.

"A lot of responders are overly worried – often to the detriment of the patient," Karam said.

When in doubt, remember you already know how to keep yourself safe from most radioactive contamination by simply taking the standard precautions you would for any other patient.

About the author

Sarah Calams previously served as Associate Editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief. In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delved deep into the people and issues that make up the fire service to bring insights and lessons learned to firefighters everywhere. 

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