How to Save Your Life: A Dirty Bomb

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Dr. James Carafano









U.S. strategy rightly focuses on stopping terrorists before they can successfully conduct an attack on American soil. However, given the wide availability of radioactive material and the many means of employing it in an attack, a determined terrorist could conduct a successful strike. Fortunately, a great deal can be done to mitigate the casualties, psychological affects, and economic consequences of a radiological event.

Domestic efforts to prepare for a radiological attack should focus on creating a truly national emergency response system that would allow state and local governments to efficiently pool their resources, effectively direct federal assets where they are most needed, and appropriately engage the private sector. Particularly with regard to a radiological response, a national system should effectively perform four functions: provide accurate and timely information, surge medical response to the scene, ensure efficient and effective cleanup of the contaminated area, and monitor health and environmental affects.

Building an effective national emergency response system could facilitate all these actions. Specifically, the U.S. should:

Develop national standards for emergency response. The House Select Committee on Homeland Security has unanimously approved the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (H.R. 3266), which includes procedures for establishing standards for responding to radiological attacks and other types of attacks using weapons of mass destruction. This legislation could serve as the foundation for establishing appropriate national preparedness standards.

Create a national system-of-systems emergency response structure. In essence, this means linking knowledgeable entities in the response to emergencies from the local level to the national level.

Focus federal resources on developing national surge capacity. Federal aid should strike the right balance in ensuring that the national, state, and local governments focus on their appropriate responsibilities. Assistance to the state and local levels should focus on medical surveillance, detection, and communication so that problems can be identified quickly and regional and national resources can be rushed to the scene.

Centralize medical response capabilities in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Congress should amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to move responsibility for overseeing the National Strategic Stockpile, the Metropolitan Medical Response System, and the National Disaster Medical System to HHS.

Enhance federal expertise in emergency medical care. The federal government lacks an integrated approach to emergency medicine, a key component of responding to a radiological attack. HHS, for example, does not have a National Institute of Emergency Medicine. Meanwhile, the Emergency Medical Services Division, tasked with developing the federal contribution to enhancing and guiding the emergency medical system, is a small office within the Department of Transportation's National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, far removed from other key elements of the federal emergency medical response system in HHS and the DHS.

Establish better coordination with the private sector. A significant portion of the cleanup after a radiological disaster will be conducted by the private sector. Potentially, in addition to professional responders and volunteers, there are about 6.5 million skilled construction workers in the United States who could respond in the wake of a disaster. The DHS, in concert with state and local governments and the private sector, should explore means to pre-train and certify construction workers; establish a registry of qualified contractors, firms, and unions; and link them to emergency management agencies. The DHS also needs to determine how technologies to speed cleanup efforts and protect workers can be rapidly distributed or contracted from the private sector when required.

A clearer understanding of the dirty bomb threat will ensure that policymakers are prepared to coordinate public, private-sector, and governmental responses to a dirty bomb attack. Policymakers and the public need to understand the costs and risks associated with dirty bombs to invest appropriate resources for preparation and prevention efforts as well as for consequence mitigation.

Perhaps most important is ensuring that people do not overreact to the mere presence of radiation without full knowledge of the extent and type of contamination. Implementing a few commonsense policies will not only better prepare the nation for a dirty bomb attack, but also substantially increase America's general preparedness.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.