These days, first response organizations like fire and police departments can be well-equipped with radiological detection equipment. In addition, the relevant personnel in these departments have received operational training in the measurement of radiation and the basic analysis of radioactivity readings.   The level of expertise in the detection of radiation – if not the interpretation of the readings – is now no longer exclusively the purview of specialists working in local health departments. This measurement capability once was exclusive to health physicists. Now the expertise resides in many agencies with an interest or a mandate to respond to a radiological incident.  If this knowledge has expanded to agencies other than health departments, can the latter still significantly support radiological incident response?

There are in fact several ways that a local health department can support a jurisdiction-wide radiological response. For example, to serve interagency collaboration, a health department can coordinate such emergency planning at a grass root level without interfering with the overarching functions of an emergency management agency. In New York City for example, a Radiological Response and Recovery Committee (RRRC) serves as an interagency planning platform while pursuing refinements to the citywide radiological response plan.  Currently, a NYC Department of Health representative co-chairs the RRRC, sets meeting agendas, and determines post-meeting follow-up actions of the RRRC.

Health departments tend to be science-based and so perceive problems and gaps from a very technical viewpoint. This allows them to pursue issues other agency personnel may not prioritize. An example of this kind of thinking originated with the NYC Department of Health concerning the issue of how to define emergency workers responding to a radiological incident: are they “radiation workers” subject to the occupational radiation limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or, are they a separate designation defined by their life-saving and criminal interdiction activities and so subject to higher and phased radiation dose limits? Such inquiries have led to the production of guidance from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement due for publication this year.

Qualified health department personnel can also deliver radiation safety, radiation detection and/or health physics training (the science behind radiation and radioactivity) that support the work of its agency partners.   For example, through the Urban Area Strategic Initiative (UASI), the NYC Department of Health has developed training for its own personnel to operate within Community Reception Centers (CRCs). As part of a citywide safety effort, it is developing a radiological health and safety plan for city workers responding to an emergency. This “RHASP” incorporates relevant training for agency safety specialists who would be implementing it.

Regarding field response, local health department personnel with a solid background in health physics are valued. Although there may be some health departments in the US that serve in a first-response capacity to CBRNE incidents, others are not, deferring to police and fire departments who must conduct criminal investigations, incident boundary security and life preservation functions before health or other agencies may venture in.   In this case, health departments can be valued for their “reach-back” expertise whereby they can be contacted to interpret radiation readings or isotope identification.  There still is, despite the spread of radiation detection equipment and training amongst first responders, some value to having a subject matter expert verify safe conditions or point out unsafe situations in the field – either by actually being there or remotely by electronic communications.

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Mark L. Maiello, PhD is a radiological emergency planner with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He served in the radiation safety office for Wyeth pharmaceuticals and its successor Pfizer for 17 years. Mark was educated at Manhattan College and New York University. He is co-editor of Radioactive Air Sampling Methods, published in 2011 by CRC Press, Inc.