Emergency responders must have a basic understanding of radioactive materials, radiation, and radiological monitoring procedures in order to effectively respond to radiation emergencies. How you react in such situations may make the difference between a routine call and a disaster.


In January 1982, 14 cars of a Southern Pacific railroad train derailed along Route 111 in Indio, California. The train was carrying a 16-curie americium/beryllium neutron-sealed source. The hill of lading called it RAM-NOS Fissile Class III. The source was undamaged and no radioactive material was released, yet 14 individuals were refused admittance to the hospital for fear of contamination.

In June 1981 a pickup truck missed a bridge approach on US 30 in Massillon, Ohio and landed on the railroad tracks under the bridge. The truck was carrying a 125-millicurie cesium 137 logging tool and a 2.9-curie americium/beryllium neutron-sealed source. The shield had slipped off the cesium logging tool. An erroneous report of radiation levels of 5 mR/hr (milli-Roentgen per hour) at 25 yards caused great concern and an overreaction to the incident. The actual radiation level was 0.2 mR/hr at 10 feet—a hundredfold less than the reported value.

The Columbus, Ohio Airport was shut down for two hours in March 1990 when a baggage handler noted that a package bearing a “radioactive Yellow III” label was wet. He notified his supervisor, who contacted CHEMTREC and the local fire department. After surveying the package and obtaining a surface reading of 33 mR/hr, the fire department assumed a release of radioactive material had occurred. However, the maximum dose rate permitted by the Department of Transportation at the surface of a Yellow III label package is 200 mR/hr, and 10 mR/hr at a distance of three feet. Personnel from the Ohio Department of Radiation Protection surveyed the package and conducted wipe tests to determine that there was no release of radioactive materials. On arrival in Pittsburgh, the plane was isolated until it and all baggage, cargo, and ground crew personnel could be surveyed. Several passengers also were surveyed. No evidence of radiation or radioactive material was found.


According to a 10-year study conducted by the DOT from 1970 to 1980, there were anywhere from two to three million shipments of radioactive materials a year. Of those, there were 101 reported accidents. Of the 1,114 packages involved, only 58 were damaged to the point where radioactive materials were released. In general, the vast majority of shipments involve small quantities of radioactive materials in small packages. The DOT attributes the infrequency of releases to the shippers’ proper packaging as well as the effectiveness of DOT transportation safety standards and regulations. However, this does not guarantee that you won’t respond to a radioactive materials release in your career. You must be prepared and train for any type of radioactive release —great or small.

What can you expect when confronted with an accident involving radioactive materials? Until state, federal, or other technical assistance arrives—and even after—you will have to make decisions and take appropriate actions. The following will give you some guidance in managing such an incident. However, there is no substitute for adequate training, plans, and written standard operating and accident procedures.

Transportation accidents. Emergency units frequently respond to transportation accidents involving radioactive materials with no prior knowledge of the radiation hazard. Vehicle placards, package labels, container shapes, and shipping documents all can provide crucial information.

When arriving at the scene of an incident involving suspected radioactive materials, stop all vehicles at least 500 feet upwind from the scene. If a downwind approach is used, extend this distance to 1,000 feet. A twoperson monitoring team wearing full protective clothing, SCBA, and personal dosimetry and using both highand low-range survey meters should approach the scene beginning from about 500 feet upwind. The team should constantly observe the survey meter until it shows a reading of 1 mR/hr. Then mark this point and designate it as the 1 mR/hr boundary. From this point perform a 360-degree survey to establish a 1 mR/hr perimeter. This will be the hot line. In those cases where the 1 mR/hr reading is detected at a distance of less than 100 feet from the scene, establish the hot line 100 feet back from the incident site.

Source: The Fundamentals Course for Radiological Monitors, Student Manual, FEMA.

Based on initial survey readings, the incident commander or his designate w ill project stay times to ensure that predetermined administrative exposure limits will not be exceeded. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania the annual permitted dose for radiation workers is limited to 5 R. (This 5-R limit for emergency workers is based on the latest recommendation of the National Council on Radiation Protection. It is significantly lower than the limit set by the federal government) Every effort should be made to keep exposure as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA).

{Note: Be aware that you will get a reading off a package that contains radioactive material whether it is leaking or not. If the reading is within limits, it is not necessarily a dangerous situation.)

The primary objective when responding to incidents involving radioactive materials is the rescue of trapped and injured victims and the treatment of serious medical injuries. These issues take precedence over assessment and treatment of radiological hazards.

Rescuers must have an organized plan to limit exposure. In the case of an immediate life-threatening or significant fire situation, establishing radiation levels and projected stay times prior to entry into the area is not practical. In such instances the team entering the area should carry a monitor to establish radiation levels and adjust stay times. The team also must give priority to locating and retrieving the shipping documents. Place these documents in a clear plastic bag at the hot line to prevent their contamination.

Any team that approaches the scene of a possible radioartive release must use full protective clothing, SCBA, and personal dosimetry.if radiation is detected, a 1 mR/hr line, covering a 360-degree perimeter around the accident scene, is established.Rescue and lifesaving activities take precedence over radiation hazards monitoring.

(All photos by Bradford Communications Corp., Beltsville, Maryland.)

Fixed-facility accidents. A facility that normally uses radioactive materials for its operations most likely will have highly radioactive sources or large quantities of materials. Because these facilities are fixed, preplanning will be of great value in preparing your response.

The general guidelines for approaching a fixed facility are similar to those used in a transportation incident Apparatus should always approach from upwind and should be positioned outside a 500-foot perimeter from the structure. All personnel entering the area must wear full protective clothing. SC!BA, and personnel dosimetry. Perform a rapid but complete survey of the exterior of the building.

If you must enter the building for rescue or firefighting, be sure to have an organized plan that will limit the exposure of response personnel to the hazardous material.

If contamination is airborne, take action to limit the spread of contamination. such as shutting down the building’s ventilation system. In fire situations, position apparatus outside the 500-foot perimeter and hand-carry hoselines into the scene. Take the minimal amount of equipment needed into the hot zone, because whatever enters the hot zone stays there until it can be surveyed and decontaminated. Do not ventilate the building or perform overhaul.

Isolated source incident. Accidents involving a single radioactive source such as a radiography camera or radiopharmaceuticals are handled in a similar manner. Establish a 500-foot perimeter and use full protective clothing including SCBA and personal dosimetry. If there is no immediate life or safety hazard, do not attempt entry. The only action necessary is to secure the scene until trained personnel arrive to deal with the problem.


Depending on the nature of the radiological incident, radioactive contamination may exist. The purpose of decontamination is to prevent or at least limit the spread of contamination. The first step in controlling contamination is to set up a step-off area at the control line (hot line). All entrances and exits from the hot zone are made from this area. All people found inside the hot zone as well as all personnel who enter the hot zone must be monitored for contamination at the step-off area.

If their medical condition permits, accident victims should be monitored for contamination. If contamination is found, remove the contaminated clothing but take no other decontamination measures. Wrap all contaminated victims in disposable blankets or sheets and transport them to a hospital for evaluation and decontamination. If possible, use one ambulance to transport all contaminated individuals. The ambulance can be draped with plastic to facilitate decontamination. Remember, lifesaving measures take precedence over any radiation survey.


If you suspect or know of contaminated victims or responders, alert hospital emergency personnel as soon as possible so they can prepare a radiation area. They will need to know the following information:

  • Number of contaminated individuals.
  • Medical status of victims.
  • Number of victims.
  • Radiological status of contaminated individuals.
  • Extent of contamination.
  • Areas of greatest contamination.
  • Evidence of internal contamination.
  • Identity of radionuclide and chemical form.
  • Exposure to nonradiological hazards.
  • If the victim was exposed to radiation but not contaminated, obtain the following information and provide it to hospital personnel:
  • Where the victim was located in relation to the radiation field.
  • How long the victim was in the radiation field.
  • The source of radiation—what isotope and number of curies.
  • Names and addresses of rescuers. In addition, retrieve film badges or disometers if the victim was w earing them, and give them to hospital personnel.


All equipment taken into the hot zone must remain there until it has been surveyed, decontaminated, and released. Place equipment or clothing in sealed plastic bags and tag them as radiologic ally contaminated. The ambulance used to transport contaminated individuals must be surveyed and, if necessary, decontaminated before being placed back in service. As a precaution, the ambulance crew should shower and change clothes at the hospital.

A hot line and step-off area, where everyone leaving the hot zone is surveyed for contamination, is established.All contaminated individuals—whether victims or not—should be wrapped in disposable blankets or sheets and transported to a hospital capable of handling radiation emergencies.


Every jurisdiction should develop an all-hazard emergency response plan This plan should include a radiological annex and hazard-specific appendices. Develop standing orders or standard operating procedures for dealing with radiation incidents. Examples of these can be found in Preparedness and Response to Radiation Accidents, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Radiological Emergencies: A Handbook for Emergency Responders, published by Bradford Communications, Green Belt, Maryland. Distribute these plans and procedures to all involved in radiation incident response. Practice procedures by conducting periodic tests and exercises.


Once a responding unit determines that a true radiological emergency exists, the local radiological emergency plan goes into effect. Regardless of the scope of the incident, notify’ the state agency in charge of radiation protection.

Local government. Local government agencies are responsible for handling radiological emergencies. Utilize all local-level recourses before requesting state assistance. Don’t confuse notification with a request for assistance.

Load private recourses. As part of your preplanning, identify facilities in your community that use radioactive materials. Request their assistance in handling a radiation incident in advance. Find out who to call and what equipment and instrumentation they can provide in an incident.

NOTE The listw telephone numeerj mey have changes since publication Checx penooicaily to ensure that you nave me correct numoer

The Chemical Transportation Emergency Center. CHEMTREC provides 24-hour emergency information for transportation accidents involving hazardous chemicals.

The shipper. Don’t forget this resource. He knows his product and can give advice on handling an incident. He also can send trained personnel to deal with the problem and properly clean up. decontaminate, and dispose of the radioactive material.

State government. The state government provides radiological assistance through the radiological health section of the state health department or the Department of Environmental Control. Notify the responsible state agency about any incident involving radioactive materials within its jurisdiction.

Eederal government. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Radiological Assistance Program provides on request extensive advice and assistance on coping with radiological hazards. To obtain DOE assistance, call your regional office (see list above).


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