Radiation safety team supports first responders

Scott Wendt with radiation meters

Radiation Safety Officer Scott Wendt shows a pair of radiation meters available at the Radiation Calibration Facility inside the Environmental Health And Safety Services Building. Photos by Christopher Gannon.

The university's radiation safety staff is helping first responders and health care providers around the state prepare for radiological emergencies. The team, which is part of the environmental health and safety unit, received a $75,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to purchase new equipment and train firefighters and other emergency personnel.

"A radiation incident is a low probability but high consequence event," said Scott Wendt, the university's radiation safety officer. "Even though it's not very likely, we still need people to be prepared so they can respond appropriately and help people stay calm."

Training lifesavers

In addition to the FEMA grant, the radiation safety staff are working with Iowa's health care coalitions to develop radiation emergency plans. From February through June, they will have conducted training with most of the coalitions in the state, which bring together small and large health care providers to share ideas and resources. Training for firefighters and first responders also is ongoing -- Wendt said they have provided radiation training for more than a dozen Iowa first response teams.

Radiation safety staff use a combination of experiential and tabletop exercises during training. They start with radiation basics -- like how to minimize risks and the different types of radiation like alpha, beta and gamma -- before moving onto hands-on activities with the equipment.

"One of the big advantages we have as a university that is licensed to use radioactive materials is that we have radiation sources we can take to the training," Wendt said. "Part of the training is showing them how to use the instrument and then having them try to find the source that we've hidden, so they get to practice."

Hypothetical situations -- such as a terrorist threatening to use an explosive laced with radioactive materials -- are posed during the tabletop exercises. Wendt said unlikely scenarios like this are used so team members can discuss how they would prepare for potential contamination and its effect on the local population.

Scott Wendt with new and old radiation meters

Wendt shows a new digital self-reading dosimeter (top) alongside its analog predecessor.

Though large-scale radiation incidents are rare, the training also prepares first responders and health care staff for more probable situations such as a vehicle delivering radiation treatments to a hospital getting in a traffic accident.

"We'll show firefighters what packaging and labeling of the radiation look like," Wendt said. "We'll say, 'If it's this kind of accident, your turnout gear will protect you from contamination so don't panic, get out your meter and figure out if any of it has spilled.'"

Bigger impact 

Radiation meters must be calibrated annually, and the ISU radiation safety team has been providing this service for years to researchers and staff using radiation for their work on campus. In 2021, Wendt approached the state's radiation calibration facility with a proposal to combine their efforts after the closure of Iowa's nuclear plant in 2020 led to funding challenges for clients relying on the state's radiation safety services.

The state agencies agreed and relocated their radiation calibration facility to Iowa State, opening up new avenues for Wendt's team to serve first responders and health care coalitions. Wendt said ensuring safety for those working with radiation equipment has become even more fulfilling since acquiring the state-level facility and engaging with new partners across the state.

"One of our goals is to work on a way to be part of the collaboration between health care coalitions and fire departments moving forward," he said. "If they're in the room at the same time and they're talking to each other, that relationship is going to be good for everybody."

Learn more

The news service team covered the radiation calibration faclity in 2021. Watch the video below or visit its website.