Hazmat Survival Tips: Emergency Response to an Incident Involving Radioactive Materials

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 36

by Steven De Lisi

This edition features a summary of a real-world hazardous materials incident. It’s not simply a “war story” but an example that demonstrates that incidents with a “favorable outcome” result from the deliberate actions of first responders before and during the incident. A first responder once offered his view of safety on the fireground: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Unfortunately, luck can only carry you so far on this job-the rest is up to you.

In this particular incident, a local fire department and its hazardous materials team were dispatched to a construction site for an accident involving a soil moisture-density gauge. The device, which contained a radioactive source consisting of cesium 137 and a mixture of americium-241 and beryllium, had been partially crushed by the rear wheels of a dump truck. The device was in use at the time and the resulting damage prevented the user from securing the radioactive source within its designed shield.

On arrival, firefighters secured the scene while members of the hazardous materials team, wearing firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), conducted a site survey for radiation levels using a radiation detector. Results of this survey yielded a maximum reading of 100 microR (.1 mR) above background levels at a distance of 10 feet from the source. Knowing that construction sites can pose numerous physical hazards, they also evaluated the scene for problems such as open trenches, uneven terrain, low-hanging wires, and overhead obstructions.

Responders contacted the state’s radiation safety department and the device’s manufacturer for assistance while the owner of the device notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the accident. After consultation with these technical subject matter experts, responders determined that a large sheet of polyethylene could be used to contain any release of radioactive particles from the source. Firefighters wearing their PPE and SCBA placed a 20-foot square polyethylene tarp over the device.

Radiation safety department personnel then responded to the scene and attempted to manually reset the device in its protective shield, but could not do so because of the extent of the damage. It was determined that an alternative shield would be needed to recover the device and it was decided to wrap it in a lead blanket to reduce radiation levels. Lead sheeting obtained from a local plumbing supply company was cut to the appropriate size and, once the device was wrapped in this blanket, it was placed into its designated shipping container. Readings taken at the exterior of the shipping container and at a point approximately three feet from its surface did not exceed the maximum levels allowed for highway transportation.

Personal protective equipment worn during the recovery effort included Tyvek coveralls, latex gloves, and rubber boots. Field monitoring equipment included two radiation detection kits. Each individual involved with this activity received a thermoluminescent dosimeter (TLD) badge and a dosimeter. At the conclusion of the recovery, all PPE used, the polyethylene sheeting used earlier, and the dump truck that damaged the device were scanned for evidence of radioactive contamination. None was detected.

Of importance for these first responders was confidence in knowing that their radiation survey meters had been properly calibrated and maintained so they could depend on the readings obtained. Furthermore, they knew how to contact representatives of the state agency responsible for radiation safety, and were familiar enough with local resources to quickly locate the lead sheeting required to secure the device safely.
These preparations did not happen by accident; they happened only because first responders took the time necessary to train and prepare for this type of event. Some of the first responders were already on a first-name basis with radiation safety personnel, since they had previously visited their office for training.

For most firefighters, incidents involving radioactive materials are extremely rare. During this event, first-arriving emergency personnel resisted the urge to rush in. Instead, they secured the scene, identified the materials involved, and conducted an initial site assessment to determine the extent of hazards present (both physical and chemical) and the distance necessary for a reasonable isolation zone. They then consulted with radiation safety technical experts the device’s manufacturer, and together achieved a favorable outcome. Most important: Everyone returned home safe!

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi’s book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi is employed by Tetra Tech EM, Inc. as a program manager responsible for planning, training, and exercise activities related to hazardous materials response. He recently retired from the fire service following a 27-year career that included serving as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue and a division chief for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist and as an adjunct instructor for VDFP, he continues to conduct hazardous materials Awareness and Operations-level training for fire suppression and EMS personnel. De Lisi began his career in hazardous materials response in 1982 as a member of the hazmat team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department. Since then he has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management; in that capacity, he provided on-scene assistance to first responders dealing with hazardous materials incidents in a region that included more than 20 local jurisdictions. De Lisi holds a master’s degree in public safety leadership and is the author of the textbook entitled Hazardous Material Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response, published by PennWell.

Subjects: hazardous materials response, hazmat incidents involving radioactive materials

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