Integration and cooperation are two key operational virtues needed by first responders to cope with almost any emergency –but especially a nuclear and/or radiological emergency. If one adds terrorism to the mix, those two key virtues become operational necessities. Imagine firefighters, law-enforcement personnel, hazmat teams, and other first responders all arriving at a crime scene at which radioactive contamination has been detected (or is suspected). Without the proper training, the very people who are trying to resolve the situation can unintentionally make it far worse. 

The State of Washington’s Department of Health has been working with local, federal, and other state emergency-responder departments and agencies to introduce and explain a concept known as the Forensic Evidence Management Team (FEMT), which gets its strength from bringing the members of various emergency-response disciplines together to teach and learn from one another.  The FEMT concept was developed in the United Kingdom in response to IRA terrorist bombings and has worked well there since the late 1980s.  

It was adopted by the United Nations in 2005 through a “First Responder Manual” developed by the The Leadership Team makes the decisions on which evidence, regardless of contamination levels, should be taken out of the hot zone for further investigation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has been taught in Washington State since 2005, when it was first introduced here by a former Scotland Yard forensic expert. 

The FEMT concept could work just as well under the federal government’s ICS (Incident Command System) guidelines. An Interlocking Network of Integrated Teams FEMT is simply an integrated way of teaching emergency responders to preserve evidence, and even to identify evidence found at and/or taken from a crime scene.  The FEMT concept integrates emergency responders into smaller and more specialized teams as part of the overall response effort.  The latter teams might include and be designated as:

  • An Entry Team, which conducts radiological surveys and identifies evidence;  
  • An Evidence Team, which processes the evidence;
  • A Decontamination (or Decon) Team, which supports the responders working within what is described as the “hot zone”; and
  • A Leadership Team, which guides and directs all of the responders.

All response agencies should be represented on the Leadership Team, and many should be represented on one or more of the smaller and more specialized operating teams as well. But it is the Leadership Team that makes the decisions on, among other things, which evidence, regardless of contamination levels, should be taken out of the hot zone for further investigation. The 2006 FEMT course carried out by the state of Washington included presentations by state crime-scene laboratory personnel and provided an awakening of sorts; until then, many of the emergency-responder students enrolled in the course had not realized how, and how much, their actions might adversely affect the emergency scene. Now one sees law-enforcement personnel, health physicists, members of hazmat teams, and firefighters talking with one another about the best way to approach a scene – always keeping in mind that it is crime scene and that any evidence that might be found on the scene must be carefully preserved for future forensic examination and possible use. 

Leo Wainhouse

Leo Wainhouse, manager of the Radiological Emergency Preparedness Section of the Washington State Department of Health, has over 26 years experience in health physics, environmental assessment, and emergency preparedness. He has significant experience – with private-sector companies as well as government agencies – with radioactive materials and has participated in the retrieval, packaging, and disposal of “orphaned” or lost radioactive sources. He also has acted as project manager for two uranium mill closures. He recently developed a unique hands-on training approach, using real radioactive materials, for federal, state, and local emergency responders.

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