There’s a hard philosophical conflict in emergency preparedness that goes like this: do you want to build capabilities to respond to an incident or do you want to prevent it from happening in the first place?

You need both, but they tend to compete for the same pot of money.

[The twenty-first in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

There’s a nasty tangled ball of motivations, recriminations, blame, avoidance and desk pounding of NEVER AGAIN that happens with every incident. If we could fix that, this cycle might break but I’m going to assume for the time being that we will all continue to be human.

To be clear, I’m in general case discussion of emergency response philosophies/broken logic here. There is a school of thought that regards focusing on response, with gear, training, and personnel ready to go as admitting defeat. You’re letting the bad things happen!!!

[insert pic of frowning firefighter here] “Yes. I love fires and I love running directly into burning buildings. Please build with the most combustible materials and store all your accelerants & hazmats indoors. Definitely never insulate your wires.”

The existence of emergency responders is an admission that Shit Goes Wrong. It is not defeatism, it’s a contingency. It’s being ready to render aid to your fellow humans. Money we put aside to care for each other. But to a certain brain genius mind, this looks like waste. You are spending money on salaries, training, real estate, specialized gear, and above all maintenance of all that which only seems valuable right when you need to use it. After which you need to spend more money to get it all back to tip top shape, ready to go again.

But until you need it, that capacity is just sitting there costing you money. And you may, in fact, have more than you need. This makes the MBA brain geniuses sad, so there is an argument to be made that the best thing to do then is get out and use it *for other jurisdictions*.  If the first thing that came to your mind is over-militarized police departments in more affluent areas itching for a reason to use the surplus MRAPs they’ve been handed in a mutual aid call to a poorer, browner community…I’d say you’ve been paying attention.

But there is another mindset that says this is also waste, that this is an admission of defeat, that you are LETTING the incident happen before heading in to play Great Big Heroes. That, truly, what you should do with that money is vigilantly prevent this from ever happening in the first place.

There’s a problem with this. You are going to fail, nothing is foolproof. The problem with declaring NEVER AGAIN after an incident is that the outrage cycle goes into hyperdrive when something similar enough but not quite the same happens. Even more annoying is, if your prevention efforts are working, that they are justification to efficiency minded brain geniuses that the incident you’re trying to prevent never happens anymore. It’s a thing of the past. All this is a waste for a non-event.

The Department of Homeland Security, a patchwork monster that never should have been, was stitched together out of dozens of disparate agencies by people who nominally had efficiency in mind but achieved nothing of the sort. And it was created with NEVER AGAIN as their ethos. I wish I could say I have sympathy for DHS, that I respect their impossible task and the burden that they’re never allowed to fail ever (NARRATOR: they failed often and repeatedly), but I don’t. Because to achieve TOTAL SECURITY this requires infinite resources and breadth. Mission creep doesn’t even begin to cover it. Because the paranoia required to try to achieve 100% prevention means you need complete control of everything, complete surveillance of everything. Ain’t nobody got time and money for that. And so they fail.

These are maximalist positions, but not far off from what DHS thinks it’s supposed to be. The constituent parts of DHS are somewhat more realistic about what they can achieve because they remember what their original, pre-DHS remit was. DHS will be a punching bag forever.

To pull back from those idiot positions, you need both prevention and response but they hard part is balancing your resources so that they reinforce/improve each other and that you have what you need when you need it. NOTE: this is not the same as Just-In-Time, almost the opposite

As an example, the aforementioned fire & building codes that the firefighter would like you to follow not only decrease the likelihood of a fire happening but make fires less severe when they do happen. Conversely, firefighters are also inspectors when not on calls. Which brings us to the four choices in this poll. There’s a mix of preventative and responsive in there and, with the exception of one, you’d ideally like them all but with a little more thought put into their deployment. Alas, 25 characters to make poll choices is tough.

I’ve been talking in generalities for emergency response because there are commonalities in fires, floods, quakes, tornados, etc. But radiological events, especially with the “terrorist” enhancement, adds a few more wrinkles. Namely, a lot of different flavors of cops.

TRICKY BIT: “radiological event” contains everything from a lost source to nuclear weapon.

Emergency decontamination caches, gear scattered around so that in the event of a radiological incident you can break this out to start recovery work by cleaning up the mess. Sounds great! But here’s that asshole to ask planning questions for you:

  • What needs to be in the supply cache?
  • How many caches do you need?
  • Do things expire & need to be replaced?
  • Who has access to them?
  • How are they secured? 
Atomic Robo Gets Decon’d – Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day, pg 16, 2008

There is one last problem with decon supply caches: what do you need to know to actually use them? Decon isn’t just a bottle of NUKE-B-GON and a scrubby brush. Well, that’s one part of the process. If you don’t train people what to do and just open the doors to the public, great, you don’t have a decon supply cache anymore because the randos walking in here just contaminated the fucking decontamination supplies. Also, you may go to your cache and find it pillaged in your time of need. Dang kids!

This is one of those manifold complexity problems where management gets harder with the more things you have and more locations you’ve got. You want a mix of both local and remote caches to make sure that something is available nearby with the admission some will be lost. Being honest with yourself while planning is one of the kindest things you can do for You of the Future. Really, you should do this all the time but wishful thinking in emergency planning will cause unnecessary problem/casualties down the road.

But this is a purely post-event recovery mode. People will accuse you of welcoming the terrorist attack just so you can rotate stock. No, you must get ahead of the event! Let’s issue radioprophylaxis to everyone so the population is prepared. That’s the ticket! You’ve empowered the populace! BOLD ACTION! Doing things!

Oh wait, this is medication? That sounds like doctor stuff. Pretty sure I’ve discussed this before, so I’ll summarize.

Thou shalt not take any radioprophylaxis without explicit medical instruction. You may damage organs by taking it willy nilly. Taking it after exposure doesn’t really help, you’re too late. None of these *remove* radiation from the body like RadAway in Fallout. Other than chelation therapy (very unpleasant, may kill), that’s not a thing. RadAway, the bullshit trade name for sodium iodide pills being sold very unethically by prepper sites, is real.

We do issue sodium iodide radioprophylaxis to people in the immediate vicinity of nuclear power plants on the grounds that we want you to have them on hand and we’ll issue an emergency alert to take them before the radioiodine cloud heads your way. But who’s to say radioiodines are the thing you need to worry about in the full spectrum of radiation related terrorist attacks? There are so many different radionuclides to play with and NaI pills are useless against most of them. Great job, you did expensive safety theater. You also likely caused an uptick in thyroid disease from idiots and children taking them just because.

Let’s step back from poisoning the population to merely monitoring them. As long as we’re charging them tolls, let’s put some rad detectors on the roads into town too! Highway rad monitoring isn’t new. Large detectors hanging over entries to bridges & tunnels and near places where we would like to not lose very exciting things have been kicking around for quite a few decades. Upping your game to every entry road is something else though.

Oh hell, here’s that asshole with spec questions again:

  • What kind of radiation(s) do you want to detect?
  • Active or passive detectors?
  • What sensitivity levels?
  • What are acceptable false negative/positive rates?
  • How long do you need for a scan?
  • Should we change the speed limits to insure enough detection time? 

But stepping back a bit, when you install detectors what you’re really doing is collecting data which means it has to go to someone to analyze. Who? Local police? County or state emergency operations center? FBI? DHS? A new Palantir ChatGPT product? In general, you’re going to use these to try to detect gamma emitters. Most beta and all alpha aren’t getting beyond the vehicle to your detectors and detecting neutron emitters is hard so you’re already missing stuff. Also, not all gamma emitters are easy to see. You’ll want to set alarm points on your detection system, once you decide what and how you want to detect, to get someone to go out there and DO SOMETHING.

Oh dear, did you integrate your detectors with cameras to know what vehicle tripped the alarm? Because if you didn’t, super cool, now you know that there’s something you probably don’t want somewhere in your city and GAME ON to find it. Of course, there’s also a decent chance you just observed someone that had a nuclear medicine treatment on a drive. And I did say “all entry roads”. Take a moment to consider how many entry roads into Manhattan there are. Now think about how many there are into St. Louis. Now think about trying to keep all of those calibrated and maintained, nevermind the folks who steal and shoot at them for fun.

Emergency decon supply caches probably feel cheap by comparison now.

Taking the party back to Manhattan, note how there are quite few ways in that don’t involve roads. Would you like to cover train stations, airports, and ferry terminals too? Hell, if they’re small enough, why don’t you go ahead and slap a detector on every cop car and every fire truck? If you can, why not make them carry one along with their bodycams? Speaking of bodycams, I recommend making it impossible for them to turn the detectors off.

Considering that your first responders who will, like, respond to things when an alarm goes off, it’s not unreasonable to rain monitoring on them like candy. It’ll be godawful expensive but, as stated in the poll, an extremely large amount of money got dropped on you. Now all the previous problems the asshole asked about earlier are now focused on each responder/vehicle:

  • What does the thing you equipped them with detect?
  • How sensitive is it?
  • Is it actually calibrated/maintained?
  • Did you actually train your first responders what to do when it goes off? 

This is where people get VERY JUSTIFIABLY concerned about handing cops another piece of gear to hang off their belt or car. This is also where I have to make you aware, if you weren’t already, that this has been common for over 20 years. It is only more recently that we added similar and, in my opinion, better gear to fire trucks & ambulances. Cops can’t really shoot the radiation but they are useful for telling them to hold a cordon, but the firefighter hazmat teams & paramedics will be taking care of victims.

Some interesting things become possible when you deploy that many mobile monitoring units, if they’re networked. On a ground level, you can have a unit set to Minimal Training Required and that training consists of “When the alarm goes off, go the other way.” That’s more personnel management, but doesn’t mean that’s the only thing the monitor is capable of. With vehicle power and radio, real easy for your emergency operations center to maintain a real time radiological map of your city and you can change the resolution by sending more cars in.

As a person who has been known to do instrument repair and calibration, I get this fluttering sensation of panic at even the thought of being the person responsible for the radiation detection emergency responder instrumentation network for a small community, much less New York City. My gripe with such a deployment isn’t about whether it can detect what I need it to, but what else does it also detect. Because of the deployment of such systems, nuclear medicine departments have to give patients cards to show to cops when their meter goes off so they don’t get shot by panicky, armed radiophobes with badges.

It’s good when the detector finds the level gauge in a scrap metal truck heading to the recycler, preventing another Yonke Fenix event from happening. It’s less good when you cheaped out on the detectors and it just found you an Amazon truck full of kitty litter. Perhaps the tremendous expense, because all of these have happened, would all lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of how much we use radioactive materials and ionizing radiation every day in so many different ways in our cities.

…yeah, I don’t think so either. 

If you would like to know more about such response planning, may I recommend the works of @DanKaszeta? It’s nice to know people who can legitimately say “I wrote the book on that.”