A Dirty Bomb
How to protect citizens while participating at large events
- By Scott Masiella
- Sep 01, 2017
Americans love large events—the bigger, the better.
Stadiums in the United States can be packed with
as many as 100,000 or more cheering football fans.
Political events, from rallies and protests to primaries
and inaugurations, also can draw huge crowds.
Sometimes, participants and spectators at large events are contained
in a single venue. But just as often, in cities and towns nationwide,
crowds are spread out in less controlled environments for parades,
races, July Fourth celebrations and similar community events.
And for law enforcement tasked with monitoring crowds in these settings
and proactively identifying illicit behavior, detecting radioactive
material is both critical and challenging.
In big cities and even in smaller communities, the threat of radiation
is real. The consequences of a “dirty bomb” explosion could be significant,
for the crowd at the venue and for communities miles beyond.
Big Cities are Tempting Targets
Terrorists often target large cities, and especially popular events that
attract large crowds, where an attack can do significant damage. The
Boston Fire Department’s (BFD) special operations unit knows how
vulnerable a city can be to such an attack. It is one of the agencies
overseeing public protection for all major Boston events, from the Independence
Day fireworks to Harborfest, The Boston Wine Festival
and the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the second-largest in the country.
The unit is also on call for impromptu events, such as this year’s parade
celebrating the New England Patriots’ championship, and pop-up
protests, such as the Boston Women’s March that drew 175,000 people.
The annual Boston Marathon, which draws hundreds of thousands
of spectators to watch 30,000 runners race from Hopkinton to
Boston, is particularly challenging for special operations, who need
to secure large, uncontained crowds along a route that spans more
than 26 miles. The tragic 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are a
stark reminder of this challenge. If these had been dirty bombs, many
spectators would have been unaware that they were exposed to radioactive
materials, which could have resulted in long-term health risks.
The head of the BFD’s special operations unit, Chief Dennis Costin,
understands better than most the importance of having a comprehensive
plan in place that includes sweeping the area—looking
inside trash cans and flower planters, peeking into windows of cars
and stores, etc.—in search of suspicious packages or materials and
screening the area for radiation, both before and during the event.
His unit has invested in new radiation detection instruments to help
its members protect both the public and themselves at large events.
The unit now owns more than 75 devices, including handheld personal
radiation detectors (PRDs), multi-purpose digital survey meters
and radiation detection backpacks. The unit’s vehicles are equipped
with these instruments and backpacks so they can be quickly deployed
during an emergency. Costin said his unit is purchasing an additional
200 handheld PRDs funded by grants, an important source
of supplemental funding for emergency response equipment.
For Costin, one of the most important benefits of these instruments
is the speed with which his officers can determine whether a “hit” on a device indicates natural radiation,
usually not a concern unless there is a significant
change in amount, or artificial radiation,
which requires further investigation.
“The peace of mind these instruments
provide us and, by extension, the public, is
immeasurable,” Costin said. “Keeping the
public safe is our first and foremost priority.
And at large public events, we need to do
that with as little fanfare as possible. We have
a multi-layered approach that allows us to
mitigate something quickly without disrupting
the event. We can only accomplish that if
we have sophisticated equipment, especially
small or handheld devices that allow us to
make quick and confident decisions.”
Smaller Cities Can Be
A city doesn’t have to be large or host an
iconic marathon to be at risk. National political
conventions—such as those hosted
in Philadelphia and Cleveland in 2016 or
Charlotte and Tampa in 2012—are just one
example of events with sufficient scale and
visibility to create massive challenges for law
enforcement. Police and fire departments in
these cities take threats as seriously as any
city here or internationally, and they, too,
must budget and prepare as if a significant
event could threaten them in the future.
There are also concerns about football
stadiums as soft targets. Security at championship
football games is famously tight,
with an extra law enforcement presence and
state-of-the-art technologies. In the United
States, there are more than 100. stadiums
that hold more than 50,000 people, and
eight of them can accommodate more than
Wherever large crowds gather, regardless
of event type or location, police and fire
departments confront the specter of a dirty
bomb, and they need to have planned and
prepared for that possibility. But planning is
about more than having the right radiation
detection instruments: The best-prepared
teams will also have identified all possible scenarios
and practiced how to respond to each.
The Right Radiation Detection
Technology is Key
Handheld PRDs and backpacks are the most
widely used technologies for dirty bomb detection.
For many responders, however, the
more important question is whether there
are enough instruments to deploy around or
nearby an event to protect effectively against
attack. The ideal formula includes the right
instruments, in sufficient numbers, with welltrained
For example, a response unit may purchase
a state-of-the-art handheld radioisotope
identifier. It can be a valuable investment,
but it’s only part of the equation. This
technology can identify and quantify radiation
to inform next-step decisions, perhaps
moving a crowd beyond a perimeter. But it is
not a preventive tool.
Detecting and pinpointing the location
of radiation in an undetonated device, where
it is contained in a small space and possibly
shielded, requires more sophisticated technology.
This technology, featured in personal
radiation detectors (PRDs) and backpacks,
enables dirty bomb detection before detonation.
Field personnel benefit from handheld
instruments that allow calm, inconspicuous,
real-time scanning of crowds for radiation.
On these agents’ belts is a device that can
quickly and easily inform them of whether a
radioactive material is potentially dangerous
or from a natural or non-threatening source,
such as radiation from industrial X-ray manufacturing
facilities, hospitals, nuclear medicine
labs or cardiac pacemakers.
The latest innovations in handheld PRD
technology include highly sensitive and
accurate instruments that combine both
gamma and neutron detection and include
advanced capability to eliminate problematic
nuisance alarms from natural sources
and people with recent medical treatments.
This technology continuously analyzes the
radiation field and immediately differentiates
between artificial or natural radiation,
reducing or eliminating nuisance alarms
from building materials such as granite, tile
or sand, or cargo containing salt, bananas
or even kitty litter. A device that is capable
of also identifying medical radiation,
quickly and automatically, further reduces
the burden on security personnel who have
multiple tasks to secure the area as well as
responsibility to investigate every alarm.
These features provide protection without
compromising security or adding complexity
to crowd control.
Dirty bombs can cause significant damage,
and it’s nearly impossible to predict
when and where an incident could occur.
The best defense is to be prepared
and proactive. Beyond radiation detection
equipment it’s important to think through
what-if scenarios; develop strategic, disciplined
response and communication plans;
and train agents with regular practice runthroughs
until the planned response becomes
A coordinated approach, along with the
right technology, will place law enforcement
agencies in the best position to protect
citizens and communities
from the threat of
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Security Today.