National Preparedness: Adventures in Radiation Monitoring

I love to climb up on roofs. I must have been a mountain climber in a past life. But, since I live in Chicago (where the land is about as horizontal as a thin crust pepperoni pizza), rooftops are about the only thing that can satisfy my need for altitude. However, this addiction to heights is a good thing, because one of my jobs is to get radiation monitors installed on rooftops around the Great Lakes.

image of a RADNET radiation monitorEPA’s national radiation monitoring network is called RadNet. RadNet monitors are near-real-time radiation monitors providing baseline data on background (a.k.a. normal) levels of radiation in the environment. In the event of a radiological incident, EPA will initiate RadNet’s emergency mode, allowing us to get a lot of data very quickly. We also have monitors that can be deployed to the immediate vicinity of the incident to assess the spread of contamination.

When we are finished installing monitors, RadNet will provide coverage for more than 70% of the geographic area in the United States. EPA has specific criteria for the placement of these monitors. In urban areas we often have to place these monitors on roof tops. I have had the pleasure of climbing roofs in Chicago, Toledo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Des Plaines, Bay City, and Champaign. But I’m not finished yet. I still have a few more roofs to scale.

I do want to say that – next to getting up on the tops of buildings – the best thing about the job is meeting all the great people who operate the monitors. State, local and tribal government volunteers operate most of these monitors. Without the great work and dedication of all our volunteer operators, the program simply wouldn’t work.

I remember standing on a roof in Cincinnati one very hot day. Heat waves were visibly shimmering off the black tar and my shoes stuck with every step. I don’t know how warm it gets in Hades (not yet, any way), but that Cincinnati roof couldn’t have been more than a few degrees cooler. I was working with folks from the health department and our EPA laboratory to get the RadNet monitor installed and operating. I looked out over the City of Cincinnati, wiped the sweat from my eyes and thought to myself, “I have just about the best job on Earth.”

About the Author: Jack Barnette is a senior scientist with EPA’s Region 5, Air and Radiation Division. Jack is a former Federal and State (Illinois) On Scene Coordinator. He currently is the preparedness coordinator for the Air and Radiation Division, and serves on the Response Support Corps and on the Regional Incident Coordination Team.