Science Notebook: Innovation and Improving Emergency Response Capabilities

About the author: Jed Harrison’s research background dates back to 1974, starting in agriculture, then indoor air quality. Since 1992, Jed has been Director of EPA’s Radiation & Indoor Environments National Laboratory (R&IE) in Las Vegas. Jed oversees several programs including the western contingent of the EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT).

image of authorOne of the things that makes us special as a Radiation Laboratory and Response Team is that we’re radiation measurement specialists. In the event of a radiation incident, our lab has an important role in determining the extent of the contamination, characterizing that area, and ensuring a successful decontamination and cleanup. We do this by using our specialized field and lab-based measurement capabilities.

Responding to a radiation disaster, we may be working on a scale that exceeds anything that EPA has ever experienced. We will be under great pressure to work quickly and effectively so that people’s lives can get back to normal as fast as possible. Our goals will be to get people back in their homes with access to safe food and water and to see local businesses reopen so that people can return to work and school. The ability of local economies to recover will depend upon the success of small businesses to get back on their feet, and time will become an enemy.

image of two women adjusting a portable radiation monitorSo, a large focus of the R&IE laboratory has been on developing methods, tools, and capabilities that can increase our speed and efficiency, without sacrificing the measurement quality needed to make good decisions. I believe that EPA will have the greatest success by shifting the proportion of our measurement efforts toward field-based analysis using real time instruments, and rapid methods using field lab capabilities.

Decades of field experience – at contaminated sites and emergency responses – has helped us evolve. This yields capabilities like R&IE’s scanning systems that integrate real-time radiation monitoring systems, G.P.S., and wireless data communication. Mounted in trucks, all-wheel drive tractors and portable “buggies,” these systems allow us to cover large areas quickly, collecting a great “density of data” which can be viewed in a map format and superimposed over aerial images. This greatly simplifies data interpretation, allowing us to make better decisions faster.

image of all wheel tractor & portable buggie

As a Lab Director, it’s my job to keep our laboratory capable and relevant. We’re always looking for better ways to do our work, and opportunities to partner with others. We may never have all the resources that we would like to have; we realize we have to “work smarter.” By partnering with our colleagues on the RERT, EPA’s On Scene Coordinators, and EPA’s Environmental Response Team and National Decontamination Team, good ideas are created. These ideas are based on real world experience and foresight which become seeds of continual improvement and innovation.

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