An April Fools Cautionary Tale

TL;DR moral of the story: do not prank emergency responders. We will play it straight and you won’t like it.

Once upon a time, several years ago, a grad student decided to call the spill response line and call in a spill in a non-radiological control area. Because my name is first in alphabetical order on the receptionist’s list, the call got routed to me rather than the co-worker of mine he was hoping to prank. When I showed up to the lab, heavy spill kit and normal work bag in tow, and was directed to the break room where the there was a spilled mug of coffee, student declared, laughing, “APRIL FOOLS!”

I didn’t laugh. I remained stonefaced. I asked, “Is that the radioactive spill?”

Fainter laughing from student, “It was just my coffee, man.”

With continued stoneface, but a trace of concern in my voice, “So you drank it then?”

Student, now with concern in his voice, “Look, it’s just coffee.”

I opened the spill response kit and started to take things out. “Do you know it wasn’t contaminated?”

Student, stammering, “C’mon man.”

I handed him a bioassay kit. “When you’re finished here, I’ll need you to give a urine sample to verify there’s been no uptake.”

Student, “What?”

I gestured to the kitchen and desk areas of the lab “Once you’ve made a documented survey and decon’d this entire area, because I see several other mugs of suspicious fluid and evidence that the spill has been tracked through here, THEN I will need do do a urine bioassay to verify that you have not ingested any radioactive materials.”

Student, getting angry now, “THIS IS BULLSHIT! I’m not doing this.”

I did not smile. “If you don’t, then I have to. This is a spill response. And if I have to respond to a spurious spill, you will then get to explain that charge to your PI when it makes it’s way though the accounting in about a month. We always give the lab a chance to clean first during spills before we get involved. Your choice.”

About this time, while it was now dawning on student #1 that once you trigger the safety response script it has to play out, another student walked into the office area to come get something from her desk. I firmly told her “Stop right where you are. You have just entered a contamination area.”

She just rolled her eyes and said “Yeah, right.”

I blocked her way, handed her a pair of tyvek booties, and hit her with full force of Command Voice I can summon. “Stop. Remove your shoes, place them in this bag and put these booties on. This is not a request. When he verifies they’re clean, you can have them back. Meanwhile, you!” I gestured to Student #1, “Get the rad tape up. You don’t want anyone else entering the contamination area.”

Eventually all nine grad students of this lab were participating in an item by item survey of the kitchen and office area, and a complete on-your-knees survey of the floor of the entire lab space. Luckily, I had brought extra meters in the spill kit so it was easy for everyone to take part. Four hours of verifying zeroes later, I congratulated them at the end for running an exceptionally good decon drill and that I trusted that they would be well equipped for any future response.

That lab’s students skittered away from me from then on when ever they saw me in the halls.