Serving New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and Eight Tribal Nations.
EPA Participates in Simulated Response to Detonation of “Dirty Bomb”
Like many other federal agencies, EPA responds to disasters and emergencies, most often to contain the release of and clean up potentially harmful or toxic substances. And while it’s impossible to fully plan or prepare for a disaster or emergency—each one is unique—EPA and other agencies practice how they would react during this type of situation. This summer, EPA personnel set out to Albany, N.Y. to help plan for a potential dirty bomb explosion as part of a U.S. Department of Energy- and New York State-sponsored exercise. For over three days, more than 500 first responders participated in a comprehensive exercise to evaluate the technical response and multi-agency management of a radiological dispersal device explosion in a city.
EPA’s aim in the multi-agency exercise, one of the largest drills of its kind ever conducted, was fairly simple: observe and evaluate how we would respond and how well our partners would work together to protect the population and recover from the emergency.
During such an event, EPA would be the lead federal agency in charge of cleaning up the contamination and providing its expertise and resources to the local decision-making authorities. EPA emergency responders, scientists, engineers, analysts and others would all be called into action in a response that would take careful coordination between local, state and federal partners from every segment of the public and private sectors. EPA and its partners would draw upon its specialized tools, equipment, and technologies to speed radiological decontamination and cleanup.
Playing without the Fun and Games
After more than a year of preparation, exercise planners, participants and observers focused on learning how to determine the chemical makeup of the bomb, measure its health impacts and assess the extent of the release on the affected population and environment. Participants were required to begin and end all communications with the phrase, “This is an exercise,” to avoid any chance that a member of the public might mistakenly think the simulation was real. The public and media were alerted beforehand to the presence of helicopters, emergency personnel and other exercise resources.
During the first week of June, responders fanned out across New York State’s emergency operations center on the Harriman State office campus and multiple monitoring sites around the staged blast zone to take environmental samples and monitor the area. During such an event, the focal point for data collection and analysis would be a radiological monitoring and assessment center staging area. This critical information hub was set up inside a hockey rink (minus the ice).
The guiding principles to such a response are outlined in something called the National Response Framework, which is a kind of playbook for emergencies. The framework describes how everyone from communities to tribes, from states to the federal government work together to coordinate a national response. Most importantly, it details specific authorities and best practices for managing emergencies. One of the most important tools in a coordinated response is working within an Incident Command Structure (ICS), a standardized, emergency management system designed to handle any emergency or event – everything from a forest fire to a large wedding. Regardless of the situation, ICS aims to get everyone on the same page and working together quickly and effectively.
So how did we all do? A complete and detailed interagency review will be published soon. Overall, invaluable lessons were learned, better inter-agency relationships were forged, policies and practices will be improved significantly thanks to the drill. Most importantly, “This was only an exercise.”