Saving lives when the radiation alarm sounds

First responders re-create a real emergency (and learn a new use for baby wipes)

A crew of firefighters puts on protective gear. They need to investigate a possible release of radiation. Their plan is to secure the building, make sure nobody is inside, and find the radiation’s source.

Firefighters, members of the National Guard, Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and others prepare for a drill on a release of radiation on Wednesday, Nov. 3, at Discovery Park in Seattle. / About 50 first responders from the Seattle Fire Department, National Guard, and U.S. Department of Energy stand in a parking lot waiting to practice responding to a radiation release on Wednesday, Nov. 3, at Discovery Park in Seattle. Also in the photo are emergency vehicles and a tent used for radiation decontamination.

As soon as each firefighter enters the building, high-pitched alarms blare from devices they carry. Significant radiation is detected. They go room to room, making sure nobody else is inside. As they search, they measure the radiation and pinpoint its source.

They are re-creating a night in early May 2019 when an accidental release of radiation contaminated 13 people on the Harborview Medical Center campus in Seattle.

This time, firefighters are taking part in a drill. But the radiation they’re working with is real.

Seattle hazardous materials firefighters from Station 10 enter the radiation-contaminated building during a drill Nov. 3 at Discovery Park in Seattle.

Training is a big part of our job

DOH staff joined crews from Seattle Fire Department stations 10 and 27, the National Guard’s 10th Civil Support Team, and the federal Department of Energy in early November for this drill. They wanted to re-create the 2019 Harborview event to apply what they’d learned from it. Many people at the drill had been at the 2019 incident.

After any radiological incident, representatives from agencies involved in the response meet to discuss ways to improve future responses. DOH conducts multiple training sessions each year for responders and workers on how to react to radiation releases.

Hunting for radiation: Inside the drill

During the drill, about 50 people gather at Discovery Park in Seattle outside a shuttered military training and administration building. Inside, small amounts of radioactive cobalt and cesium are hidden from the firefighters. Cesium-137 is the same material accidently released at Harborview when workers were removing an irradiator. Irradiators are used to treat blood, prepare research materials, and sometimes to sterilize food.

The federal government has a program to secure radioactive materials and help replace irradiators. The training prepares responders to deal with radiation in case another release occurs.

Devices used by the firefighters during the drill show if they stay in the building close to the source for an hour, they will get a dose of radiation equivalent to about two chest X-rays.

“We’re using the same isotopes that they have in irradiators so the civil support team and the hazardous materials folks can see what their instruments might look like in a real instance,” said Ryan Brice, a DOH radiation health physicist.

The group has three drill priorities.

1.Care for the people at the site.

2. Secure the site.

3. Thoroughly assess the damage.

A crew from Seattle Fire Department Station 27, which specializes in decontamination, pauses to ask questions of DOH and federal Department of Energy staff Nov. 3 in Discovery Park in Seattle.

Step One: Caring for those exposed

Five DOH team members participate in the drill, playing the role of exposed workers. They line up outside a decontamination tent set up outside the building.

Fire Station 27 houses the decontamination unit that responds to local radiological and chemical contamination events. Their team moves deliberately while performing a “dry contamination,” asking questions such as, “Should we cut off or roll down the clothes?” (Either is fine.) They use handheld devices that measure ionizing radiation. Each person tries each device. Radiation protection experts offer tips, such as, “Wear two pairs of gloves, so if you become contaminated, the outer layer can be easily removed.”

They learn that most homes have a great tool for removing radiation and limiting exposure: baby wipes.

“I don’t know what they put in baby wipes, but they are good for removing most forms of radiation contamination,” Brice said. “And Sharpie stains from carpets.”

To mimic radiological contamination, the team uses Glo Germ, a substance often used to test for proper handwashing. If it’s not washed off, it glows under an ultraviolet or black light. The firefighters could see if, using the baby wipes, they’d fully removed the “radiation contamination.” After wiping down skin, they check with the black light. They learn to set aside contaminated materials in plastic bags for later disposal.

“Wet decontamination” is often seen in movies where sprinklers and hoses spray water on people as they move through a decontamination area. During the Harborview incident, first responders used the wet method because they didn’t know the dry method was an option. Both methods are effective at removing radiation.

A Seattle Fire Department hazardous materials response truck on Nov. 3 in Seattle.

Step Two: Searching the building

While decontamination continues, a team from Seattle Fire Station 10 prepares to enter the building. They wear self-contained breathing apparatuses, dosimeters, and other protective equipment. They carry ionizing radiation detectors.

Fire Station 10 is home to the hazardous materials (hazmat) team, which responds to radiological and chemical events.

“It’s so beneficial to get everybody talking and working together,” said Grant Bonham, the hazmat team captain. “We had our newest hazmat members today on up to our most experienced. The ability to interact with their counterparts at the federal and state level was extremely valuable. If we ever have a big event in the state, whether an accidental release or (intentional), it’s going to take all of us working together to mitigate that emergency,” Bonham said.

Members of Seattle Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team report their findings after securing and examining a building for radiation exposure on Nov. 3 at Discovery Park in Seattle.

Step Three: Fully assessing the damage

After patients are safe and the building is secure, the work of fully assessing the damage begins. The Department of Energy leads the efforts to determine the condition of the building and land around it. Then they examine the contamination more thoroughly with DOH staff.

Cleanup of a radiological event can take minutes, as it did after the drill, or decades, as with the Hanford nuclear site. Cleaning up the 2019 event took two years and cost over $100 million.

After a successful training activity, more training

“The exercise was an overwhelming success,” said Major Wesley Watson of the National Guard’s 10th Civil Support Team. They respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events in Washington. “(The drill) went really well because we took the time to ask detailed questions about what really needed to happen during the early stages of Harborview. This will make a follow-on response, if this were to occur in the future, that much more successful.”

More training events will follow. DOH hopes to train hospital and ambulance workers soon. Knowing how to best care for exposed people is vital to both patients and health care workers. The goal is to train everyone likely to respond to radiological events.

To set up a drill with the Office of Radiation Protection, contact Mark Henry at mark.henry@doh.wa.gov or 360–236–3271.

More information

Information in this blog changes rapidly. Sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles. For more information from the Washington State Department of Health, visit doh.wa.gov.

Questions about COVID-19? Visit our COVID-19 website to learn more about vaccines and booster doses, testing, WA Notify, and more. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

From the Washington State Department of Health

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.

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