D.C. Using Dirty Bomb Detectors
Old Gear Revived For New Threat
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 17, 2002; Page B01
The District government has begun digging Cold War-era Geiger counters and other radiation detectors out of storage and distributing them to city firehouses to try to give firefighters an early warning after a "dirty bomb" detonation or other act of nuclear terrorism.
Fire crews near downtown already are using a handful of the old detection devices. More than 200 more have been sent to New Jersey for recalibration, and District officials plan to distribute them to every fire engine in the city and to police and emergency management officials near the end of next month.
The D.C. fire department's hazardous materials unit carries much more sophisticated equipment, but rank-and-file firefighters say the Geiger counters -- some of 1960s vintage, bearing the old Civil Defense logo -- could help those first on the scene of a terrorist attack.
"In the scenario of a dirty bomb, we just want to know, is there a secondary hazard" from radiation after an explosion, said Battalion Chief Richard Sterne, who oversees downtown firehouses. With the Geiger counters, he said, firefighters will be "working a little smarter."
The possibility of a dirty bomb -- a conventional explosive wrapped in some kind of radioactive material and designed to spread radiation and panic -- is one that area public safety agencies included in exercises even before Sept. 11.
The department's hazardous materials unit, once a part-time squad, has been flooded with federal money since Sept. 11. Battalion Chief Mike Sellitto, who oversees the unit, said it now has very modern equipment for dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. But the unit, housed at 2225 Fifth St. NE, probably wouldn't get to the scene of an attack until after a regular fire engine.
Similar preparations are going on elsewhere. The Montgomery County fire department distributed sophisticated radiation-detection equipment last month to its district fire chiefs, who might arrive at an explosion scene before the specialized hazmat unit, a spokesman said.
The federal government began a program this summer to give unneeded radiation detection equipment from the Department of Energy to governments that want it for homeland defense. The District has asked for help from this program, an Energy official said.
But the bulk of the radiation equipment slated to be given to D.C. firefighters has been in the city all along. The devices, part of the Civil Defense program, were forgotten as tensions between the superpowers declined. This year, they were found in firehouses and in storage used by the city's Emergency Management Agency.
The ones held by the Emergency Management Agency -- more than 200 devices, including Geiger counters and more sophisticated equipment -- were sent to the New Jersey State Police. That department will recalibrate them for $5,000, EMA Director Peter G. LaPorte said yesterday.
When the recalibrated devices come back in late September, they will be distributed so that each of the city's 33 fire engines has one, Sellitto said.
Other jurisdictions and most big-city departments have given such radiation-detection gear only to specialized units like hazmat and rescue squads. An official with the U.S. Fire Administration said yesterday he was not aware of any other fire departments in the nation that have Geiger counters on all their fire engines.
While the city waits to get the recalibrated devices, a few crews near downtown are using Geiger counters the department found in various firehouses. The devices were brought to George Washington University Hospital and tested, and the seven or eight that seemed to work were handed out immediately, Sterne said.
But the old detectors don't seem to have the same accuracy they once had. "We don't completely trust these things," he said.
At Engine 23 on G Street in Foggy Bottom, the Geiger counter is still kept in its olive-drab bag, and the handbook firefighters must consult for it is dated April 1963. On Thursday evening, Capt. Robert Mullikin had to turn it on twice before the needle responded as the handbook said it would. Once, he had to resort to flicking the dial with his finger when it didn't respond properly.
"To a point," Mullikin said of the device, "it gives us a little peace of mind, I guess."