Communicating During a Radiation Emergency

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June, 2017

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Preparing for and Responding to Radiation Emergencies

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This month's Emergency Partners Newsletter is on the topic of radiation. In emergency preparedness and response, radiation is a complex threat and can present significant challenges for responders. Become familiar with radiation resources as part of your preparedness activities.



See below for emergency preparedness updates, tips, and interesting facts. 


Radiation Hazard Scale

A Tool for Communication in Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies

Radiation hazard scale

Radiation is a technical, complex, and largely unfamiliar topic. Understanding and communicating radiation levels and the associated health risks is a challenge, especially in an emergency. CDC's Radiation Hazard Scale provides a frame of reference for the relative hazards of radiation. The full tool found on CDC's website includes a table with details on each category of the scale and associated health risks.   

This tool is intended for use in an emergency during short periods of exposure and should be used to accompany health and safety recommendations to the public.


Radiation Thermometer

Radiation Thermometer

Understanding Radiation Doses

CDC's Radiation Thermometer is an interactive tool that allows people to put radiation doses in perspective, making them easier to understand. It can help assess their own risks during a radiation emergency. By manually adjusting the toggle on the thermometer, an example of common radiation sources at that dose appears on the screen. For example, when moved to 0.01 rem /0.1 mSv a picture of a chest x-ray appears showing that this is the amount of radiation absorbed by the body during a chest x-ray.

Gotham Shield 2017

Exercise Exercise Exercise

Imagine that terrorists detonated a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb in a major US city.

Since the summer of 2016, CDC has worked with public and private partners across the country to test its preparedness for this scenario by participating in an exercise codenamed Gotham Shield 2017 (GS 17). GS 17 was designed to assess regional and national incident management and incident support capabilities for National Planning Scenario 1: the detonation of an improvised nuclear device (IND). This is the first of 15 scenarios designed to test the country’s ability to respond to and recover from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Radiation disasters have always been mysterious to people, including those in the public healthpreparedness community. “Can’t see it, can’t feel it, can’t taste it, and can’t touch it,”

Doctor Whitcomb briefs Doctor Redd

notes Dr. Robert Whitcomb, Chief of CDC’s Radiation Studies Branch in the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH). “Even our public health partners have some of the same fears about radiation and exposures and 

Left: Dr. Whitcomb briefs Dr. Stephen Redd, Director of CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response during the Gotham Shield exercise.

contamination as the general public, because of their unfamiliarity with it.” Thanks to the support of CDC leadership, the Division of Emergency Operations (DEO) and NCEH were able to obtain the funding and the staff to set up a Nuclear/Radiological Training and Exercise Program (TEP).

It’s overwhelming to imagine the devastation that can be caused by a nuclear detonation. Nuclear explosions are often measured in kilotons, which have explosive power equivalent to 1000 tons (2,000,000 pounds) of TNT. A 1945 bomb detonated in Hiroshima, Japan, caused an explosion of approximately 15 kilotons. A 10 kiloton IND detonation in a modern metropolitan area would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties. Depending on the terrain and height of burst, it would destroy infrastructure within a three mile radius.

When a nuclear detonation first occurs, there is a bright flash of light—sometimes called the light of a thousand noon-day suns—that can cause immediate blindness and disrupt both air and ground traffic. Depending on the weather, wind can blow a cloud of radioactive residue miles away from the initial blast site to nearby communities. The electromagnetic pulse from the blast could destroy communication infrastructures, complicating efforts to get emergency information to affected populations. An attack like this would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take years from which to fully recover.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, Dr. Whitcomb noted a shift in the way CDC approached radiological preparedness. “After September 11th, our preparedness posture was renewed, enhanced, and magnified by the fact that terrorism is an avenue where bad people will take radioactive materials and do bad things with them.” President Obama echoed these thoughts at the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2016. “There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible…just the smallest amount of plutonium—about the size of an apple—could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”

GS 17 began when preparedness agencies in New York City, New York State, and New Jersey decided to exercise their preparedness for a radiological/nuclear event. They invited multiple agencies across the federal government to participate. This allowed them to interact with real partners rather than simulated ones. Organizations that accepted the invitation aligned existing radiological preparedness efforts with the parameters of the GS 17 exercise. For example, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command stage an Exercise Ardent Sentry annually to focus on Defense Support of Civil Authorities. This year, they brought Exercise Ardent Sentry under the umbrella of Gotham Shield.

Similarly, the Gotham Shield exercise allowed CDC to pressure-test our radiological preparedness efforts. “We are going to be learning every minute of every day during the exercise,” said Bill Howard, DEO’s Training and Exercises Team Lead and CDC’s exercise planner, prior to GS 17. “It’s going to be a shot in the arm, and it’s going to be tough. CDC-ers are that way, they want to get better, they want to be smart, and they want to be on the cutting edge. I love it!”

Bill noted the importance of exercising and preparedness in public health: “Gotham Shield is a learning environment; it’s a non-retributional environment. I’m not going to slap you on the hand for making the wrong decision, but we are going to learn from this.” He recalled the effectiveness of a prior exercise that simulated a pandemic influenza outbreak. When the H1N1 influenza outbreak occurred in 2009, Bill remembered CDC responders saying, “You know what, this is just like the exercise. I know exactly how to communicate, who to interact with, and how to operate in the emergency operation system.”

Health communicators that staffed the Joint Information Center (JIC) for Gotham Shield had similar sentiments. “The biggest opportunity we have to save lives after a nuclear explosion is to let people know to shelter in place. Getting that information to people means the difference between life and death,”

Right: Joanne Cox, Vivi Siegel, and Brian Panasuk, CDC Health Communicators, staff the JIC during GS 17. 

Joint Information Center staff

said Vivi Siegel, one of the JIC Leads for GS 17.  “The more we prepare and practice in advance, the more ready we will be to handle this type of devastating situation.” Cait Lutfy, who staffed the JIC Outreach desk for the response, noted the importance of building relationships across CDC. “It was invaluable to work with NCEH, so we are not all meeting for the first time if an emergency like this ever happens. My team is already planning some products and templates that we will be working on in the coming weeks so we can deploy them quickly and easily in a future activation.”

Practice is the key to readiness, to being prepared to react quickly following a real emergency. Dr. Whitcomb hopes that CDC’s preparedness efforts continue beyond the scope of Gotham Shield. “The military exercises all the time. Are they at war all the time? No. Once Gotham Shield is done, we need to keep the preparedness posture going, because the threats don’t go away.”

Videos dispelling radiation myths

Dispelling Myths during a Radiation Emergency

How much do most people know about radiation? What do they think they know? How would the public react to a radiation emergency and the basic messages to get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned in if in an affected area?

In an emergency, communicators need to anticipate myths and rumors and use emergency communication approaches to dispel them. CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health interviewed people on the street to help identify common myths people believe about radiation. Below are some common myths and how to disprove them in ways people will understand.

  1. Myth: “There is nothing you can do to protect yourself from radiation exposure.” Fact: People can protect themselves from radiation exposure if they are in or around an affected area. Communication approach: When communicating during a radiation emergency, give clear, easy-to-follow, protective actions to people. Tailor the actions to the specific audience and geographic area.
  2. Myth: “Even the smallest dose of radiation is not safe and will harm you.” Fact: We are all exposed to small doses of radiation as part of our daily lives and are not harmed by it. Communication approach: Communicators can become familiar with the radiation hazard scale and radiation thermometer to better understand and communicate the specific risks associated with different doses of radiation.
  3. Myth: "Clinicians who treat contaminated people are risking their own lives." Fact: There are ways clinicians can protect themselves from contamination while responding to patients in a radiological event. In most situations, the risk for exposure through a patient is low. Communication approach: Provide detailed instructions to clinicians on the proper protective measures they can take using a credible source or spokesperson. Communicate clinician safety measures before or at the outset of an event so there is no delay in the treatment of life-threatening injuries.

These and other myths are dispelled by CDC radiation experts in these online videos. Radiation is not well understood by most people and is especially challenging to explain or understand under the time pressures of an emergency.  As with any type of emergency, communicators should be prepared to identify and address myths.

For more resources and information on Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC), please visit or email  To read more CERC Corners like this one, please visit





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