NCRP 138: Reliable Guidance for Radiation Emergencies

For the last several years, fire agencies across the country have been actively preparing to handle incidents involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The need for solid and reliable information traditionally accompanies those preparations – and, with the large number of credible and varied attack scenarios to consider, including radiation incidents, most of the nation’s fire departments have found it difficult if not impossible to stay ahead of the equipment, information, and training curve.

The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP), a non-profit corporation chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1964 to formulate and widely disseminate information, guidance, and recommendations on radiation protection and measurements, is always on the alert for areas in which the development and publication of the NCRP materials available can make an important contribution to the public interest.

The goal of the non-profit corporation, according to the NCRP website, is “to collect, analyze, develop, and disseminate, in the public interest, information and recommendations about: (a) protection against radiation; and (b) radiation measurements, quantities, and units, particularly those concerned with radiation protection.”

To reach that goal, the NCRP developed a comprehensive guidance document several years ago to help firefighters, police officers, hazardous materials responders, and hospital personnel understand, plan for, and handle terrorist events involving radiation. Unfortunately, the guidance document (NCRP Report #138), although authoritative and comprehensive, has not yet received widespread recognition in the civilian emergency-response community.

Non-Technical Responder-Friendly Language

That situation may be about to change, though, thanks to last month’s terrorist attacks in London and the growing recognition that similar attacks – including some involving WMDs – might be launched against potential terrorist targets in the United States. If such an incident were to involve a so-called “dirty bomb” or other radiation weapon, NCRP 138 would be an extremely valuable tool for any emergency responder called to the scene, according to Major Craig Moss, a U.S. Army health physicist now on duty in the Washington, D.C., area. “The NCRP’s intent for Report #138,” he told T.I.P.S. in a recent interview, “was to write a non-technical guidance document, based on good science, that laid out the nuts and bolts of response planning and management for an incident involving radiation.” The document is written “in a language that any first responder can understand,” he continued, and “basically boils down a bunch of complicated science into a logical, easy-to-understand format.”

The NCRP report, first published on 24 October 2001 – only six weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon – is lengthy enough to cover virtually any radiation contingency now foreseeable, and sufficiently detailed to be of immediate help to first responders. More specifically, NCRP 138 is broken down into several main sections covering, among other essential topics, the following subjects: definition of the phases of a radiological event; medical management of radiation exposures; psychosocial impacts of terrorist events; command and control issues; and public communications. Also included is detailed information on radiation dose limitations. “The NCRP report,” Moss said, “is a one-stop-shop kind of document … focused on the most important points of radiation-incident planning and response.” First responders and decision making officials can use “as much or as little” of the information as they need. “In total,” he summarized, the report is “very comprehensive and provides responders with useful information and real numbers [on which] to base emergency actions.”

Dealing With the Psychosocial Impact

During the crisis phase of an incident, to consider one example of how NCRP 138 can be used, the report specifies an acceptable ambient radiation dose rate of 10 mrem/hr. Readings – from a properly functioning radiation detector – at or above this level probably indicate something significantly higher than background radiation or some other type of nuisance radiation. Conversely, according to the report, readings below 10 mrem/hr. probably do not indicate an emergency. The availability of such information would be particularly helpful when an agency is trying to develop emergency-response protocols based on measurable radiation levels.

In addition to defining what might be considered “acceptable” dose rates, the report also recommends a “turnaround” ambient dose level of 10 rem/hr. That dose rate, according to the NCRP, would allow emergency responders to perform critical missions of short duration before having to withdraw from a designated area.  Again, these and other dose rates specified in the document are based on sound science and take into account the potential health effects likely to result from acute radiation exposure.

One of the more interesting sections of the report deals with the psychosocial aspects of a terror-based radiation event. According to Report #138, the psychosocial impact of a terrorist act may well have a greater impact on the people affected than the initial event itself. “Most perceptions of radiation” are somewhat imprecise and are not always based on the best scientific evidence, Moss explains. “So if a terrorist event involving radiation happens, the mental aspects of that attack may have the greatest impact on the affected population, and could be the most difficult health effect to treat.

“The bottom line,” he continued, is that first responders and local communities will need “a lot of resources to deal with the fear and uncertainty after an event.”

The NCRP report, Moss points out, also discusses the importance of the “allied specialties” likely to be needed after a radiation incident: “The chaplains, mental-health professionals, and members of the scientific community to monitor people for their mental well-being; you … [are not usually concerned about] those types of things with traditional chemical releases or exposures.”

Moss also suggested that any emergency-response agency would benefit by creating a relationship with local health physicists – who, he noted, “are radiation-safety specialists who can help … translate science into understandable language and concepts. You don’t need to be a health physicist to make … [the right] decisions at a radiation incident, but it doesn’t hurt to have one accessible.”

Local Relationships, and a National Bonus

The U.S. health-physicist community is quite diverse, and encompasses many areas of specialized expertise – but not all health physicists understand emergency response, or the needs of the emergency-response community. “I think … [first responders] should develop a relationship with a local health physicist,” Moss advised, rather than relying on a “come-help-me-now arrangement.” A prior arrangement would be “in the interest of both communities: The emergency responder teaches the health physicist about response, and the health physicist teaches the emergency responder about the science.”

To find a qualified health physicist, Moss recommends contacting a local university that offers a radiation-safety program.  If that approach does not work, he says, “contact the Health Physics Society – you can find it on the web [at It’s the most comprehensive site for the health physics community – they can point you in the right direction. There is a homeland-security chapter in the health physics field, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.”

Moss sums up the usefulness of NCRP Report #138 as follows: “Radiation emergencies … [are] not well understood across the country – it’s just an area that people have a natural fear of.  With all the media and political hype, people – including emergency responders – don’t have a good understanding of radiation and how radiation response relates to other things they are already doing.  This document [NCRP 138] helps put radiation response into context, to some degree, and offers some rationale behind the dose rates and other measurable values.”

He pointed out an added bonus that would be of considerable value not only to first responders but also to decision makers at all levels of government and, in fact, to the nation’s entire domestic-preparedness community – namely, that the report “can be used as a foundation to standardize response procedures across the boundaries of all jurisdictions and disciplines.”


ADDENDUM: Other reports related to radiation preparedness can be found on the Reports page of the NCRP’s website.

Author’s Note: The opinions and statements made by Major Moss are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

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Rob Schnepp

Rob Schnepp is division chief of special operations (ret.) for Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. His incident response career spans 30 years as a special operations fire chief, incident commander, consultant, and published author. He commanded numerous large-scale emergencies for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department, protecting 500 square miles and two national laboratories in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. He twice planned and directed Red Command at Urban Shield, the largest Homeland Security exercise in the United States. He served on the curriculum development team and instructed Special Operations Program Management at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. He is the author of “Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations.” He has developed risk assessment, incident management, and incident command training for Fortune 500 companies, foreign governments, and U.S. national laboratories.



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