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The word "radiation" can evoke fear, even for first responders.
When faced with chemical, biological or radiological threats, a post-9/11 survey found that responders were largely concerned about protecting response personnel and their ability to decontaminate victims. Moreover, organizations cited that they received limited training for these potential threats.
Dr. Andrew Karam, Homeland Security Scientific Advisor for Mirion Technologies, a company that provides nuclear measurement and detection systems, has dedicated his career to teaching others about radiation safety. Karam started his career in the U.S. Navy's Nuclear Power Program in 1981 and began working in radiation safety after leaving the Navy.
Dr. Karam later worked for the New York City Health Department, where he directed radiation/nuclear emergency response planning efforts. He worked with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as well as the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), helping develop radiation/nuclear response procedures and policies. Throughout his career, Dr. Karam has stressed to first responders that they do not need to be afraid of victims who may have been exposed to radiation.
"Victims have been delayed getting the treatment that they really needed and suffered unnecessarily because responders were scared of the contamination," Dr. Karam said. "You want to do what you can to keep yourself from getting contaminated, but if every second counts, you don't necessarily have to decontaminate them in order to save their life."
And if you do become contaminated, Dr. Karam says responders already know how to take care of it – they just might not realize it.
"The analogy I often use is – if you're changing a diaper, you don't want to get it on you. But if you do, you just wash your hands and go on with your day. It's the same with nearly all types of radioactive contamination – you can clean up with soap and water."
This common misconception, Dr. Karam says, can lead to unnecessary fear. For firefighters who are worried about responding to radiological threats, here are five important things you need to know about radiation.