The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 forever changed everyone’s view of readiness, especially in the field of radiation. The possibility of a terrorist cell using radioactive or nuclear material as a weapon has raised the consciousness of the Washington State Department of Health, the leaders of which wanted to know not only what the department’s response should be to an incident involving a nuclear or radioactive weapon but also how successful that response would be. Largely for that reason, the department’s Office of Radiation Protection started several years ago to assess the ability of the state’s first responders to successfully respond – a task made more urgent by the fact that credible terrorism threats already had been identified in Washington State. 

Several problems encountered during the state’s “TOPOFF II” homeland-security exercise – which was carried out in May 2003, and involved a simulated dirty-bomb attack in Seattle – further emphasized the potential response problem when a fear and lack of understanding of radiation resulted in 120 volunteer trauma victims “dying” before they could reach the hospital. (The word “TOPOFF,” as used here, stands for the participation in the exercise of Top – i.e., senior – Officials.) The department started an informal and part-time outreach program almost immediately, and found responders and response agencies throughout the state enthusiastically accepting the offers of training designed to cope with incidents involving nuclear or radiological weapons or devices. Interest has grown since then to the point where, in September 2006, the part-time outreach program evolved into a full-time program, carried out by the Office of Radiation Protection’s Radiological Emergency Preparedness Section. 

Two full-time senior health physicists have been assigned to the program to identify and coordinate outreach opportunities and provide the training needed – with considerable assistance provided, though, from other health physicists in the Office of Radiation Protection. Since May 2003, the program has trained approximately 4,500 responders – including fire and rescue personnel, members of hazardous-materials spill-response teams, representatives of various law-enforcement and public-health agencies throughout the state, emergency medical staff, emergency planners, locally based federal responders, and members of National Guard CSTs (Civil Support Teams) from 12 states in the Northwest section of the country. 

Substance, Consistency, and Continuity 

The enthusiasm expressed by the recipients of the training is attributed to several factors, including the following:

  • Keeping the technical level at a point where what the material responders really need to know is fully covered, in an understandable way.
  • Taking the training to the responders if and when necessary. Many responder agencies cannot afford to give their staff the time needed to go away for training and, for that reason, appreciate having to spare only a shift at a time and/or having to participate for only one day instead of several.
  • Inviting other professional trainers to supplement the program by providing their own expertise on various topics; the “guest” instructors have included staff from the Radiological Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and experts in responder operations from the Nevada Test Site.
  • Stressing interoperability, usually by requiring various responder groups to work closely with one another, both as intact teams and as individuals. (Because responder protocols and theoretically “standard” operating procedures are often different from one agency to another, and/or from one professional discipline to another, all responders must be able and willing to work with members of other agencies to overcome the potential constraints that might develop from the lack of a common language.)
  • Using real radioactive materials – including sealed sources and Technetium 99 metastable (which has a six-hour half life) – to represent simulated dirty bombs (but real radiation) and real contamination, while carefully keeping all radiation doses as low as possible without sacrificing realism.
  • Consistently adhering to the principle – spelled out in the responder’s instructions – that “what you see with your instruments is what you get.” There are no simulations, in other words.

Evaluations from a broad spectrum of trainees show an overwhelming appreciation of the program, with 98 percent of those participating saying that, because of the training, they are now better prepared to deal with a crisis than they had been previously. Partly because of that enthusiastic response, efforts are now underway to add more staff to respond to increasing requests for the various training programs the department offers.

For additional information about the Washington State training program discussed in this article, contact either Mark Henry, Outreach Program manager, at Mark.Henry@doh.wa.gov, or Allen Conklin, lead trainer, at Al.Conklin@doh.wa.gov.

Allen Conklin

Allen Conklin, a senior health physicist with the Radiological Emergency Preparedness Section of the Washington State Office of Radiation Protection, has 31 years experience in a variety of radiation issues, including environmental and emergency-response matters. Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 he has played a lead role in training Washington State's first responders to cope with incidents involving radiological and nuclear weapons and devices. He assumed his current post on a full-time basis in October 2006, and now travels extensively to help responder agencies throughout the state prepare to cope with nuclear/radiological incidents.

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