A Dirty Bomb

A Dirty Bomb

How to protect citizens while participating at large events

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 Attractive Targets

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 100,000 spectators.

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 staff.

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 second nature.

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 radiation.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Security Today.

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