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Emergency Responders

What are questions that emergency responders should ask during a radiation disaster?

Responders have special abilities that they can use to assist the citizens in the community when an event occurs. Many of these responders are public safety/health personnel and are trained as operational-level responders, hazardous materials technicians, and specialists. However, in the course of their normal duties they could encounter an emergency involving hazardous materials. It should be emphasized that responders, of any type, should make sure they protect themselves when responding to a radioactive disaster (National Fire Protection Association; NFPA 472: Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, 2008 Edition).

In most instances, there is a lot of information that can be gained by questioning the individual(s) who was present at the scene of the incident. This information gathering needs to be accomplished early in the response.

One of the basic concepts of emergency response is the preservation of life. See the International Atomic Energy Agency Manual for First Responders to a Radiological Emergency for further information.  

The first questions that a responder should ask victims are along the lines of "Can you understand me?" or "Is there anything that hurts?" The questions can be used to determine the medical state of the person who was present when the event occurred. See Disaster Preparedness for Radiology Professionals for further information.

Once the medical status of a victim has been evaluated, then one should establish the proximity/location of the victim to the event, personal observations of events leading up to the event, and events/observations post event. See the Department of Health and Human Services website for further information. There should also be a process to document the information that has been collected from the victims by the responder.

Let's put "disasters" into perspective: 
  • The transportation of radioactive materials is very safe. There has never been a death due to the radioactive material that has been involved in a transportation accident. The engineering design and the regulation of radioactive materials shipping packaging have played a key role in this fact.
  • Nuclear weapons do present major radiation exposure conditions to victims who are within the proximity to the point of the detonation (see this link for additional information and guidance on this subject: http://hps.org/homeland/nuclear.html).
  • Radiological dispersal devices are more a weapon of fear than destruction; although victims in close proximity to the detonation of the devices may be contaminated and show effects that are similar to the effects of victims who are in proximity to the detonation of a conventional explosive bombing (see this link: http://hps.org/homeland/dispersive.html for additional information), the radiological concerns fall more along the lines of a long-term cleanup of a site contaminated with hazardous materials.

Thomas F. O'Connell, Chair
Health Physics Society First Response Subcommittee
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