Improving first responder radiation safety training

Improving first responder radiation safety training

Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service provides public safety information and prevention and protection programmes as well as emergency response cover for Mid and West Wales. We employ over 1,400 members of staff across 58 fire stations and associated support functions. The Service covers around 11,700 sq km (4,500 sq miles) – almost two thirds of the land mass of Wales.
The events of 9/11 led to a transformation in the way that UK emergency services and agencies respond to large-scale emergencies. New structures and practices ensure the UK’s resilience on every level against disruptive challenges through working with other stakeholders to anticipate, assess, prevent, prepare, respond, and recover. This is achieved through effective partnership engagement with key organisations and across regions. A well-equipped, well-trained and well-motivated Fire and Rescue Service is essential to the success of delivering resilience in England and Wales.

How do we train for radiation incidents?

Risk assessments have been undertaken to accommodate all possible scenarios that could warrant the need for a multi-agency emergency response. These assessments identified a key problem area in delivering effective training. For the vast majority of incidents the Fire Service responds to it is possible to replicate the risk in a controlled environment, allowing measured exposure to the risk and for crews to mitigate the risk, and resolve the incident safely. So how do we train for radiation incidents?
Irrespective of the cause of the potential radiation, be it from a CBRN event or industrial accident, crews have immediate access to two key pieces of equipment in order to maintain their safety – and to identify the nature and extent of the risk: namely, the Mirion / RADOS RDS-200 Universal Survey Meter and the Thermo Scientific Electronic Personal Dosimeter Mk2.
Crews are familiar with the operation of this equipment due to standard testing of equipment and traditional 'make pretend' simulation training, but there was a gap in our preparedness.
Whenever we exercised the instruments they would register background radiation, which is thankfully practically zero – exactly how we want things to be – but lacking authenticity for practical training. The only way to practically train the crews involved was getting them ‘on scene’ to calculate expected dose rates at given distances from a known source. Crews then deployed and simulated the monitoring of readings on both survey meter and personal dosimeters, with an instructor providing ‘exercise values’ as they completed the task.
This training was critically flawed in so much as while crews practice their procedures, they rely on someone else to give them the key information to make their decisions – and learn not to rely on their instrumentation as it will never change values. So, Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service has purchased equipment from Argon Electronics to address this flaw.

Realistic training

Crews are now able to simulate a whole range of scenarios with live data being displayed on their instrumentation. Prior to the start of the exercise, directing staff place a harmless source or contaminant where they wish the ‘radiation’ to be concentrated. Crews are briefed and respond according to laid-down procedures, and then prior to committing to the risk area, conduct site surveys using the training equipment.
The key detail is that the training simulators are the identical units the crews will use on a live incident. These units have been modified to respond to the simulation ‘source’ rather than actual radiation. The results are spectacular: from the moment the equipment is turned on, the crews become totally immersed in the ‘reality’ of the exercise. Crews study the survey meter for readings and learn the importance of sweeping the area in front of them thoroughly at various heights to obtain a sense of how fast their personal dosimeter reading will increase at various dose rates. Careful positioning of the source can mimic columnar ionising radiation, creating differing levels of feedback. Depending on how the RDS-200 is used, this encourages a full sweeping motion. Crucially all this learning takes place autonomously by the crews as they complete the exercise.

The crews learn:
• To rely upon the values displayed on their instruments
• The relationship between values displayed on the survey meter and time taken to accrue dose on their personal dosimeters
• The visible effect of Time, Distance and Shielding on their instrumentation.

It is well known that the most effective method of learning is under Live Incident conditions.
This training provides genuine immersion training as realistic as an incident can be without the associated hazard. We have observed more effective monitoring techniques, better retention of information, and familiarity with radiation incident procedures – with crews trained this way over previous methods with considerably less ‘skill fade’ over time.
We cover a relatively large geographical area and therefore it is unrealistic to bring all our operational staff to a central location to train. The outreach training that we provide adds to the realism – as training occurs at a venue local to the crews. The simulation equipment is simple enough in operation and functionality, so that with minimal training, regional directing staff can deploy the training in their area. By rotating training areas all crews can be trained within agreed timeframes.

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