Home Emergency Management News Improvised Nuclear Devices: DHS Publishes Guide for Protecting First Responders

Improvised Nuclear Devices: DHS Publishes Guide for Protecting First Responders

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By Kimberly Arsenault
Contributor, EDM Digest

In December 2016, the Department of Homeland Security published a new guide to assist in the protection of first responders in the event of improvised nuclear device (IND) explosion. The intent of the guide is to help ensure the immediate health and safety of first responders for the first 24-72 hours following a blast.

The full planning guide offers assistance to response planners, safety officers, and supervisors regarding potential issues that first responders will encounter if an IND occurs. The intent of the guide is to assist in maintaining the health and safety of first responders following an IND blast so that they may continue helping save the lives of others without placing themselves in danger or at high risk of radiation exposure. To provide a reference point, the guide is based on a 10 kiloton yield IND explosion that is detonated on the ground.

Understanding an IND and the Damage Zones

The guide breaks down the IND explosion according to what will occur in mere moments after the explosion, denoting damage zones that range from severe to light, the fallout zones that are based on wind (upper level wind awareness is critical) and weather, and the survival rates of individuals within those zones. Emergency response capabilities are most likely to be negatively impacted by the severity of damage within the zones, requiring first responders from outside the blast zones, so proper preparedness is key.

Damage Zones and Planning a Zoned Response

Information from the guide denotes the various damage zones and the approximate radius for each while indicating the types of damage likely to found within each zone, the type and extent of casualties and injuries, and the expected levels of radiation.

The planning guide cautions that field measurement data for radiation levels is not likely to be immediately available and advises against first responders rushing into contaminated zones without the proper personal protective equipment (PPEs). It also reminds first responders that radiation cannot be felt or seen - it must be measured with the appropriate equipment. Recommendations also include concentrating assistance and responses to those located in the most survivable zones: the light and moderate damage zones that are outside of the designated fallout zone. It also cautions against exposing first responders to radioactive fallout contamination that is likely to occur within the fallout zone, recommending they do not enter the area, which in turn will hinder response operations.

The planning guide also outlines the radiation dose guidelines, indicating that annual acceptable radiation exposure levels of 5 rem (Roentgen Equivalent (in) Man) will be exceeded, especially within light and moderate damage zones and within the fallout designation zone. It offers a comparison of the risks associated with response activities, including lifesaving, critical infrastructure missions, or fire suppression and the conditions that are highly likely to be encountered by first responders, including unavoidable radiation exposure levels in excess of 5 rem.

It also offers a word of caution to first responders regarding what they may face following an IND blast, and notes that it will be unlike any other incident they have ever encountered. Nuclear effects from an IND blast include structural damage, fire, radioactivity, and human health consequences. In light of the unique response required for nuclear/radiological incidents, a three phased response is recommended, Early phase (emergency), Intermediate (stabilization), and Late (recovery) phase.

Consequences to human health from the initial nuclear blast wave include:

  • Fractures
  • Lacerations
  • Projectile injuries from high velocity shrapnel/debris/glass
  • Internal organ rupture
  • Pulmonary hemorrhage and edema
  • Inner ear damage and/or ruptured ear drums
  • Eye-trauma
  • Combined injuries (physical trauma/burn/radiation exposure)

Some of the effects that a first responder may encounter following the blast and during the early phase (emergency) response include:

  • Tens or hundreds of thousands of initial casualties, depending on where the blast occurred
  • Capabilities will be exceeded immediately, requiring a Unified Command
  • Lack of situational awareness
  • Lack of staff/Personal safety concerns
  • Loss of communications
  • Loss of critical infrastructure inside the severe damage zone
  • Victims may exhibit:
    • High velocity shrapnel injuries, including large number of people with eye-trauma
    • Severe burns, amputations, deafness, blindness, and other blast injuries
    • Radiation sickness, with symptom onset anywhere from immediately to 3-6 hours after exposure and dependent upon dosage received. Symptoms will include:
      • Naseau/vomiting/diarrhea
      • Cognitive impairment or rapid incapacitation (central nervous system functions)
      • Death

A final note of caution from the planning guide strongly advises Incident Commanders to be aware of the fact that when a nuclear detonation has occurred, chemical, biological and radiological releases are also likely to have occurred, and appropriate precautions should be taken to protect first responders from all hazards. Any action that places first responders at risk must therefore be fully justifiable.

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Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.