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Training Ground (Zero): Developing the Skills and Techniques Needed for Better Rad Detection


October 2013

In the News

There are unofficial polls and trends that you get when speaking to first responders throughout the world: they like this detector/mask/suit, or the training they had from such and such facility was better than others. It was a groundswell of this sort of approval that dragged me down to the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) two years ago, and it was a similar avalanche of comments that made me search out the Counter Terrorist Operational Support (CTOS) training facility in Nevada. CDP and CTOS have many similarities, not least the fact that they are another partner in the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC). Where they differ is that they are the radiological/nuclear preparedness part in the same way that CDP is the chem/bio bit.


Another way that they differ is that it is much harder to get onto CTOS than it is CDP! Sadly, I had not prepared for the 45-working-day approval process to get onto the Nevada test range, but the good people of CTOS were prepared to meet me at another thematic venue – the Museum of Atomic Testing! Whereas you could always argue that CDP could be anywhere, it requires a damn sight more preparation to set up a site the equivalent of CTOS. The reason that it is out in the Nevada desert is that is where nuclear testing was done, much of it underground, but the training site is actually in the blast zone of a genuine nuclear test. In May 1955 Apple II, part of the Teapot series of tests, a 30kt nuclear device was airbust to test the effect on various buildings and mannequins (the curious among you should be able to find footage on Youtube under Operation Cue); much of the wreckage of the test is still on the site, and the area has an elevated radiological background. In 1998 someone had the brainwave of conducting radiological training and exercising at the site. While it started small; as the grant funding wave built up, the Center started training 14,000 people a year.


While much of the focus in this piece will be on the West Coast, Nevada, site, it has to be acknowledged that there are actually two CTOS facilities: the larger one outside Las Vegas and then a small East Coast one, in the New York region. This is because CTOS does a great deal of mobile training, either at exercises (as we saw with the New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner in Bergen, New Jersey) or at facilities close to the unit/agency. CTOS is able to train federal, local, tribal and regional responders. Through the work that they do for the state this includes military/National Guard assets such as the Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and Homeland Response Forces (HRF), but not internationals… yet.


“We are a federal training partner through an interagency agreement between DOE and DHS, funded through them to perform this mission, other [NDPC] members use a grant process,” said Bruce Chisholm, Operations Manager at CTOS. “We train all first responders. This could be through our ‘Response’ or ‘Prevent’ missions; we have a hazmat technician course, we have the test site, we have the PRND (Preventative Rad/Nuc Detection) onsite course for the smaller jurisdictions and we send Mobile Training Teams to most jurisdictions (unless they are so small that we bring them out to the site and do the training there). We train upwards of 14,000 students a year; there is usually a class in the test site with 100 people in it 18 times a year. We have the mobile training, which goes on a trailer and is shipped to where we have prearranged to go, and we have a class there for however long it needs to be, either prevent or response. We also have web-based training but we can train only US citizens. We are looking at international work, but it is hard and maybe this interview will help!”


The training for the first responders should be free, apart from the overtime/backfill, and is undertaken by a range of instructors, most of them ex-first responders themselves. There are somewhere between 60 and 70 instructors, but most of these are freelancers that the core team will call in depending on what skill set and location are needed. There are numerous advantages to this, not least that by keeping the number of full-time staff to a minimum it helps them to look lean in these days of financial hardship, but also that it allows them to be geographically agile and to capacity surge when needed.


Rhonda Hopkins, Program Manager at CTOS, explained, “We have the ability to call in as many as required, once the need arises. So the New York office might start off with about seven people, they might have 14 instructors available and when a course comes up they will go to Florida, set up all the logs and student registration, bring in the instructors, and when the course is over they shrink back down again.”


CTOS doesn’t have the monopoly on talented people, however, and other agencies exist, both government and commercial, that have good instructors; where CTOS does have the advantage is within their training facilities. A lot of effort has been put into building real-world scenarios that will test the responders, and all in the most real of backgrounds.


Randall Whitt, Western Region Manager at CTOS, explained, “Our premier course is our hazmat technicians’ course, and 18 Sundays a year 100 guys fly into Las Vegas. The next morning they get up and do classroom training for the whole day: radiation fundamentals, operational considerations, we bring them to the [Atomic Testing] Museum, they get a tour and a history of the site and this gets them into the right mode of thinking. Then we take them to the site; we start them out with instrumentation, some exercises, some hands-on equipment, we give them more training. Then we go to the site, which was ground zero for the Apple II test, where a 29kt device, 500ft up on a tower went off, and there is the big blast circle, radiation background is five times normal, and we start them in a trailer. We split the class into ten ten-man teams and send them around six venues. We give them a little scenario, such as a crash with radioactive material in it. We give them limits and boundaries, so they start understanding radiation and making themselves and the public safe. They spend a half-day going through the venues, and while it is a huge course we have one-on-one time between the student and the instructor: we have a drill where we have a ten-event drill, where they have to take their meter, and it is an instructor and a student, and they will do an evaluation on whether he can use his meter or not. We teach them in the real world. They have to be concerned when it is 2x background, so when it starts at 5x at the site it makes the hair tingle until they realise that 5x background is still not that much radiation. They will wear only booties, and that also helps them to understand about rad. Once they start dropping the mapping cones and they can see the pattern of radiation, it all starts coming together for them: radiation is not a big bad evil thing, but it is something to be respected.


“We have a train engine, train cars, some track, a tunnel, a truck that has crashed,” Randall Whitt continued. “So the scenario would be a truck carrying rad was hit by a train. How do you make that safe and deal with the victims? We have the city where we start doing scenarios where there is material in a lab. You need to search the city, find radiation, set up an isodose line, a 500 microrem or 1,000 microrem line. There is a machine shop with machinery like lathes, and this is an RDD and you need to find the residue from the material that they are using. Another accident site is an upside-down tractor trailer with radiation hidden in the cab, and this is all in addition to the high background. We have a truck that has exploded, the door has gone over here, and that is for an explosive dissemination of technetium 99. We have a chopped-up airplane and a helicopter and a small airport. The last day is Thursday and we have a culmination exercise: they have a tunnel with some industrial buildings, smoke generators to smoke it up, keep it dark to make it interesting. Our instructors will keep an eye on them, keep them safe, and we have a venue out at Phoenix where we have a victim rescue scenario. We will say don’t go past a 100 microrem, and we will put a source beam out that is higher than that, and we will then put a victim on the other side of that beam. Then we ask them to check that person out without violating the limit, and they need to think it through and use shielding to block the radiation and then they can go through and check out the victim. The 5x background gives them a real indication of what it would look like if they were working in a real contaminated site. No other training site in the world has this kind of reality.”


It is not just the uniqueness of the site that adds to the verisimilitude, but also the quality of the sources. While a number of other training facilities around the world have live sources, DRDC Suffield for example, CTOS believe that it is the range and strength of theirs that mark them out. “We have many hundreds of sources,” said Bruce Chisholm, “and we would typically take 70-80 sources, ranging from 50 milicuries down to micro curies, down range. If it is an identifier course we will take 18 different isotopes, some of them will be mixed to try and fool the machine; and we will put together different sources that the instruments will try and read. This enhances the training so they understand what they are dealing with. That is one of the things that make us unique, not only the range and the natural background, but when we go out and bring the sources – that is a huge difference.”


Dante Pistone, Public Affairs Manager, agreed. “Our guys bring a level of training that they have done on a consistent basis for a number of years and know what these people want. So we are licensed to carry larger sources and we will take the mobile training out to them and they will see some really high-level activity.”


While the Apple II site is impressive, and being legally capable of carrying larger sources is impressive, a sour note would be the lack of immersion in the reality of the scenario. One of the charms for me of CDP is the attention to detail in their scenario buildings, while many of the labs/workshops are isocontainer based. There are only so many places that you can hide things in an isocontainer, and the regularity of the shape always means that at the back of the mind is the fact that this is a drill. The team agreed that buildings would be preferable, and that it was something that they were moving towards.


“We are currently doing a feasibility study for a rubble pile,” said RandallWhitt. “We have a plethora of abandoned buildings on the site and we are looking at repurposing them to minimise cost. This would mean we could do changeable scenarios in different rooms, everything from small offices to pretty large rooms, so it is something that we are looking into.”


Training GroundThe team has the opportunity to use the abandoned town of Mercury, which was built for the workers at the original site, and this is currently used for training, but doesn’t have the advantage of 5x background, which buildings on the blast site would have. Rhonda Hopkins said that it was tactical awareness that was important, not the surroundings. “The concepts of the response don’t change. Having a really cool subway tunnel is nice, but that is only what it looks like; the scientific behaviour of the radiation doesn’t change.”


The ability to have operationally educated responders is very much what the team is about. While they have a vast array of radiological detectors, it is more about understanding the scenario through the detectors, rather than merely reading the data that it presents. Brian Richardson, Senior Operations Specialist at CTOS explained, “For example, we have four identifiers that we can train on, but we try not to focus on the equipment itself. We will teach that equipment, the buttons, the power etc, but the focus is on the tactical deployment. Generally it is more important to know how to use it in the real world, rather than how it works. We teach them the specifics of the different equipment as far as type goes, so when we get to the identifiers we might use Identifinder, and even though there are different ones they all function the same and we teach them how to tactically deploy it, what the information is telling them and how to turn that into logical decision making; and we will teach them how to use reachback, whom they need to talk to etc. It is all part of the class, from pulling it out of the box to putting it back after the event, they understand what it can and will do for them and what decisions to make on the information that it provides.”


Even though the team has a wide range of detectors they also are happy to deal with any that the responders bring with them; that even if they don’t have it themselves the odds are that they will have come across it before. Yet while a lot of the people who come through their door to be trained will know nothing, they do have a wide remit and this can include health physicists, academics and senior leaders. As well as doing the awareness and prevention courses for the junior ranks, CTOS also offers senior leader training – teaching commanders how to manage the whole situation, rather than a tactical element.


Rhonda Hopkins explained, “FEMA have funded a key leader tool, which the sensing lab has put together, which pulls all the available information together, a software tool called ‘The Brain’. You can dig down into this data and ask questions. What questions should I be asking in the first 24, 48, 100 hours? Ideally you would be like the Mayor of LA clicking through and reading the guidance before something happens - you don’t want someone reading this for the first time as the plume goes up and hoping that the internet connection will still be good! That is the next step for us.”


As well as ‘The Brain’, CTOS also provides web-based basic awareness classes, but have recently started working on the Rad Responder app. This is free to download, but requires acceptance from the US and a password, and is based on the database that the federal consequence management team use (find out more via YouTube and Radresponder). This allows data to be logged during an incident, but also provides features to manage training and exercises, as well as interacting with the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center should there be an incident. Currently the team is weathering the financial storm better than CDP, and feel that they will hit their 14,000 target for 2013, and maybe for 2014 too.


As Dante Pistone explained, “So far sequestration has not hit us, we are waiting to see what happens with DHS funding and how they deal with it, and it is contingent on the President’s budget and how DHS run their programmes. We have made it through 2013 fairly seamlessly, as we go through the next sequestration we will have to see how that funding comes to us and what impact that has on our ability to support the first responder. I am sure we will continue, but don’t know at what level. It is dependent on how they spend their dollars – it could stay the same or go down.”


One opportunity that the team is looking to exploit is the chance to set up their own explosively disseminated radiation dispersal device, utilising the short-lived isotope technetium 99. This will open up a lot of the sensitive site exploitation (SSE)/forensic evidence gathering work, opening the Center up to more courses and students. The team is alive to the possibilities, and are hopeful of a formal relationship with the FBI.


“They have been looking at our site right now,” said Rhonda Hopkins. “They are looking at doing evidence collection in a rad environment, and bringing other people to the site. There are other people who are also looking at it. There are four different sites competing for this; we have given them a briefing and they like some of the things that they have seen and now it is at the decision level. The tec99 and the contamination of materials is something that is going to grow.”


There are other sites where elements of this training can be done. CTOS is certainly not unique in using radiological sources, and some of these can be quite large. Equally, while the Apple II site in unique, so too is the training that can be done at Chernobyl and (if recent reports are to be believed) Reactor One at Fukushima. Many nationalities are also proud of their instructors, and the ability to be taught by one of your peers is always important. While all of this is true it doesn’t change the fact that there is a wave of positive thought about the training that CTOS is doing. Certainly the responders whom I have spoken to have given it the thumbs up – if it isn’t different then maybe it is better. Certainly the funding element helps. It is hard to argue with “free” (caveats on overtime etc) and perhaps this element allows you to train teams, build team capability and get a more rounded response, rather than train individuals who will have to then impart the sensation to their colleagues. Currently the Center is busy enough with their core customers, but if they can build the SSE piece it may well be that they can gain enough momentum to change mandate and start training international students.