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National Preparedness: Adventures in Radiation Monitoring

2009 September 1

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Ed Gilson permalink
    September 1, 2009

    Are you speaking of normal radiation from the sun that causes roofs to heat up and reradiate through roof to living or working spaces below and that cause air conditioners to activate and esculate cooling bills?

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    September 2, 2009

    This sounds like a very important emergency response system. Nuclear Power plants are supposed to be safe, well regulated, and have redundent safety features. But accidents do happen. There was 3 Mile Island that was not supposed to happen and Chernoble in the old Soviet Union that was not supposed to happen. Mistakes and accidents do happen and will happen so long as there are human operators at the power plant controls. RadNet sounds like a valuable emergency warning and response system to assist first responders. Thank you and best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. J.S. Barnette permalink
    September 3, 2009

    To Ed Gibson: Thank you for your comment. EPA’s RadNet monitors are designed to detect what is known as ionizing radiation. Radioactivity is the property of some atoms that causes them to spontaneously give off energy as particles or rays. Radioactive atoms emit ionizing radiation when they decay. Radiation that falls within the ionizing radiation range has enough energy to remove tightly bound electrons from atoms, thus creating ions. This is the type of radiation that people usually think of as ‘radiation.’ Examples of radioactive substances include uranium, radium, thorium, and radon.

  4. Linda permalink
    January 19, 2010

    This is a good move that the EPA has dedicated the time in doing. this will definitely help with the threats of radiation, either from nature or from the grim apocalyptic visions of men.

  5. David Nash permalink
    July 7, 2011

    Sounds like a great program, especially with all the scare over Fukushima

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