Nuclear Security in the Czech Republic – The Role of the Fire Rescue Service


By Cpt. Ing. Michal Setnička, P.h.D, Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic

The leading authority for radiological and nuclear materials in the Czech Republic is the State Office for Nuclear Safety (SONS). In the field of health and environmental protection against the adverse effects of ionizing radiation, the SONS ensures the following main tasks:

  • State administration and surveillance in the field of radiation protection at all workplaces with ionizing radiation sources – from nuclear facilities to workplaces with open radionuclide sources and X-ray equipment, including type-approval of ionizing radiation sources, radioactive waste management, and discharge of radionuclides to the environment;
  • Monitoring, assessment, and testing of personal exposure, including exposure to radon and other natural sources of ionizing radiation, exposure in emergency situations;
  • Observation of activities of countrywide radiation monitoring network (RMS) including assurance of international radiological data-exchange;
  • Countrywide records of ionizing radiation sources and professional radiation;
  • Enforcement of radiation protection measures including implementing corrective measures and imposing penalties.

The SONS’ role mainly involves legislative processes, control (including the inspection of nuclear installations), issuing of professional decisions, international collaboration, or carrying out highly specialized activities including scientific research.

However, the SONS does not engage in practical activities concerning the monitoring of real radioactive contamination events. In these situations, it collaborates with the National Radiation Protection Institute and other adequately equipped organizations, such as the Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic (FRS CR), the Czech Army, or nuclear power plants.

Capabilities of the Fire Rescue Service concerning nuclear security

The FRS CR is a key body when it comes to all CBRN events since a firefighter is the Officer in charge in such situations. The individual tasks and equipment of firefighters used in dealing with ionizing radiation or nuclear hazards are:

  • Detecting the danger and assessing if it is a radiation event;
  • Using appropriate PPE to prevent inner contamination (for example, self-contained breathing apparatus);
  • Performing necessary interventions such as saving lives, extinguishing fires, and the likes;
  • Marking dangerous zones and/or closing the affected area;
  • After finishing the operation, checking the contamination and ensuring decontamination.

These tasks are briefed in the FRS CR operational orders, which serve as a checklist in case of orphan radioactive source discovery, contamination by radioactive dust, and the likes. For larger incidents, such as dirty bombs or nuclear power plant accidents, there is a joint Standard Operation Plans (SOP) for the Integrated Rescue System bodies (FRS, Police, SONS, EMS, Army …) coordination.

FRS professional units are divided into four levels according to the equipment for the response to RN events. There are 173 Basic Level Fire Rescue Units (fire brigades in smaller towns ̴10,000 inhabitants) with basic equipment only. Then there are 61 Middle Level Fire Units located in district towns and 12 Strong Point Level Fire Units (HAZMAT Teams) in large regional cities with more equipment and personnel available. For more complex situations, the FRS has five chemical laboratories, evenly located within the State territory, very well equipped for all sorts of emergencies, not just radiological ones.

Basic Level Fire Units zoning and dose limits concerning RN events

Radiological hazards can be found anywhere, even in the most unlikely locations. Hence, each incident response team, composed of four firefighters minimum, has some basic equipment. Each professional firefighter unit has indicators of gamma radiation: an electronic survey dosimeter/indicator Ultra-Radiac 115. The measuring range is from natural conditions to 5 Sv/h. It serves as an indicator of gamma radiation with audible, visual, and vibrating alarms at a dose rate of 1 μSv/h.

According to internal legislation and FRS operational guidelines, when the alarm goes off, it shall be considered a radiation event in terms of irradiation. That means adopting RN countermeasures to prevent unnecessary exposure or contamination, such as using a personal dosimeter and preventing inner contamination.

The second alarm activates at a dose rate of 1 mSv/h, corresponding to bordering “danger zone”. It is prohibited to work without adequate personal protective equipment when such a limit is reached. Firefighters are allowed to enter the “danger zone” only to save lives.

A “safety zone” is marked in the case of larger RN events and is established at a dose rate of 10 μSv/h, with some regime measures to enter it. Adequate individual protective equipment (e.g., personal dosimeter) is always required. Other safety measures in place are controlled entry and limiting the timespan firefighters are allowed in this zone. Survey dosimeter Ultra-Radiac 115 has a useful “Stay Time” function for this purpose, showing the remaining minutes of the highest tolerable personal dose. This dose varies from 20 mSv per event in case of life rescue to 1 mSv per “small” event such as orphan source discovery.

To determine the personal dose, the FRS uses durable personal dosimeters SOR/R022. The same dosimeters are also used by many NATO armies and have the same firmware used within the dosimetry system of Czech nuclear power plants. This dosimeter serves as a monitor of doses obtained from ambient and artificial gamma radiation. It operates impermanent with a one-minute resolution and is checked and evaluated after every recognized incident, or minimally once per month. All obtained doses are stored in the central database of the FRS and are transmitted to the national authority (SONS) annually.

These are used in two ways. Firstly, as a group dosimeter, which means only one person from the unit, who performs the survey, carries it. Doses of other members of the team are estimated according to the dosimeter carrier’s dose. This option is used by first responders’ units. Secondly, it can be used as a personal dosimeter for individual personnel. This way is the standard for the members of the chemical laboratory, or in the case of larger and longer events such as a nuclear power plant accident or some recovery work.

Middle and Strong Level Fire Units

Higher units have the same equipment as basic units but in larger quantity; this means that each emergency vehicle (except special technique) has one survey and one personal dosimeter. Moreover, higher units also have some radiometers. The FRS exclusively uses Czech emergency radiometers DC3E98 and new DC-3H-08, which were developed in cooperation with the National Radiation Protection Institute directly for firefighters. The main advantage of gamma and beta radiometers is their fast response time. They are used in two operational modes. Firstly, as a fast radiometer for zoning or searching for a source of contamination. Values for marking zones are 10 Bq/cm2 for the “safety zone”, and 1 kBq/cm2 for the “danger zone”. For the activities in those zones, the same measures are applied as in the case of the aforementioned dose rate zones. Secondly, they are used for testing gamma/beta contamination of first responders, citizens, used equipment, and vehicles. For this purpose, each unit has at least two radiometers: one used before the decontamination for determining the hot spots, which should then be cleaned up with high priority, and the second one used after the decontamination process to check its effectiveness. The person is contaminated if find surface contamination is higher than 3 Bq/cm2 (approximately corresponds to 1 μSv/h). For contamination of material (protective equipment, radio, cars, etc.), the value shall be above 10 Bq/cm2.

For decon, simple decontamination inflatable tents or mobile decontamination lines are used, usually consisting of three sections (undressing, shower, and drying part incl. a dressing room). The system is simple to assemble and disassemble. A group of five trained people can start decontamination in 15 minutes from the arrival on the scene of an incident. Decontamination lines for mass decontamination are also equipped with facilities for casualties decontamination. Each Regional FRS and Emergency Unit has this sort of decon line. Altogether, there are 21 sets, and 7 of those are also for casualties. In addition, Emergency Units have six vehicle decontamination lines, designed as a mobile car wash. That line is operated via a remote control system, which can start operation within 60 minutes from the arrival on the scene of an incident. All waste from decontamination is collected and safely disposed of.

Chemical laboratories of the FRS CR

When a radiation event is confirmed, an intervention commander requests the assistance of a specialist from the FRS chemical laboratory. At least one expert in radiation protection and gamma spectrometry serves 24/7 in each laboratory and attends the scene with various equipment. Chemical laboratory experts’ main task is to verify and clarify all measurements performed by the lower units. Furthermore, they estimate neutron flow and alpha contamination. If necessary, they can monitor suspected areas and search for the source of radioactivity and contamination, identify nuclides in the field using gamma spectroscopy, and perform sampling for later analysis in a stationary laboratory, in which it is possible to quantify wipes, determine the degree of uranium enrichment or analyze environmental samples down to the background level. For this purpose, there is a detection, identification, and monitoring vehicle with the necessary equipment for field measurements stationed in each laboratory. It can transport radioactive sources up to the equivalent of 1 TBq of 137Cs.

The specialists from the chemical laboratory also provide consultancy regarding the protection of the population, responding units, and other intervention personnel. They also estimate the dose obtained by persons without dosimeters. Last but not least, they are competent to communicate with the national authority for radiation protection – the SONS.

The chemical laboratories are also a part of the Radiation Monitoring Network, which is under the supervision of the SONS. They perform mobile groups’ duties, carrying out monitoring of the radiation situation along the routes, gamma spectrometric determinations of surface activity after radioactive fallout, and collect samples of the environment for laboratory analysis through georeferenced monitoring devices, such as radiometers or spectrometers directly connected to GPS. The data is transmitted to both SONS and FRS central data storages for further analysis.

Other special equipment

The Emergency Units, being part of the FRS, also have special equipment for managing radiation events. In addition to the aforementioned decon lines, they also have three special tanks/containers for the safe transport of radioactively contaminated wastewater. Another special equipment used during large radiological events, such as nuclear power plant accidents or dirty bomb detonations, is a mobile gamma radiation portal monitor. That equipment is located within the nuclear power plants’ emergency planning zones. This persons and vehicles’ contamination control set was developed by NUVIA Company, in cooperation with the Institute. It is constructed as a fully adjustable set for people (2 detectors), small cars (4 detectors), or lorries and trucks (6 detectors). The geometry of measurement could be easily changed and promptly responds to the changing situation at the scene of an incident.

Education and training in the field of radiation protection

Firefighters are not only well equipped, but they also provide a complex system of education and training in this field. There are three stages of education in radiation protection. First, all firefighters must pass the basic course, where they obtain elementary information about ionizing radiation, how to measure it, and how to protect themselves. The total duration of this module is 6 hours.

HAZMAT teams can obtain more practical information and training with survey dosimeter and radiometer in a competence course. The total duration of radiation protection modules is 8 hours, and it is attended by approximately 30-35% of professional firefighters.

Finally, there is a specialization course for radiation protection (40 hours for basic and 20 hours the prolongation after five years). Approximately 20% of firefighters attended it. This means that almost every fire unit has at least one specialist. The course covers legislation, simple physical background, biological effects of ionization, decontamination, devices, and measuring, with a lot of practice with real closed sources. Those courses are evaluated and certified by the specialists from our Institute and other chemical laboratories to standardize the basic knowledge for all participants.

About the Author

Cpt. Ing. Michal Setnička’s scientific background is physical chemistry – he was awarded a PhD at the University of Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2013. He worked as a researcher in the department of heterogeneous catalysis at University of Pardubice. He joined the CBRN laboratory of Population Protection Institute, part of Fire and Rescue Service of Czech Republic, in 2016 where he works as a researcher and trainer.

Cpt. Setnička’s work is divided among education and trainings of first responders in the field of radiation safety. He also cooperates with OPCW for the education and training of first responders from all over the world in CBRN detection and protection. He performs applied research in CBRN, specialised intervention in the field, and laboratory analysis. In his scientific work he mainly focuses on RN preparedness (decontamination, creation of new methodologies, testing of new methods of detection etc.). He is a member of a CBRN response team where he is responsible for detection, identification and sampling of CBRN hazards materials from environment and their subsequent analysis in stationary laboratory. He also is a civil expert of the NATO CPG for Radiological expertise.

Cpt. Setnička authored or co-authored 19 impact and peer review papers and numbers of presentations on national and international meetings.

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