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Radiation Security Teams Protect Crowds at Super Bowl, Political Conventions

Sandia RAP members, from left to right, Kevin Rolfe, Chris Williams and Gary Baldonado scan a football stadium before a game. Credit: Randy Montoya
Radiological Assistance Program
Senior scientist Richard Stump monitors a football field with a super-sensitive, vehicle-mounted radiation detector. Credit: Randy Montoya

Richard Stump has been to five Super Bowls and hasn’t seen a single pass, run or touchdown. Stump works security — a very special kind of security — at large public events. He’s a senior scientist on Sandia National Laboratories’ Radiological Assistance Program (RAP) team.

Sandia’s RAP team and partner teams at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, provide radiological detection support for large public events in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They also help with major public events around the U.S., such as Super Bowls, papal visits, and this year’s Republican and Democratic national conventions.

“The last thing you want to have happen is somebody getting close enough to a stadium and manage to contaminate a lot of people,” said Stump. “People exposed to even the smallest amount of radioactive material would be panic-stricken, even if they aren’t hurt by the initial incident.”

RAP team members can scan the crowd incognito with hand-held radiation detectors or by circling the surrounding area with super-sensitive vehicle-mounted radiation detectors. Or they might sport nice logo hats and shirts, use traditional radiation detectors and openly advertise their presence, depending on the threat level and desires of the event organizers.

“Being able to provide that layer of security for these events, and provide a level of expertise in interpreting what’s going on, is something that I have pride in. Anybody can get a radiation detector and take a measurement, but we can interpret what it means and advise on a response. Without us you would run the risk of things being misinterpreted as safe when they might not be, or vice versa,” said Hans Oldewage, who recently took over for Stump as regional contractor response coordinator.

In addition to several planned events each year, RAP team members are on call as first responders to assist federal, state, tribal and local governments for incidents involving radiological materials.

One day, they might be called out because someone finds an object with radioactive markings while cleaning out an attic; the next day they could be responding to an accident involving a vehicle transporting containers of radioactive material or safely unsticking a lethal radiation source at a national lab. Only a few of those happen each year, but they can happen at any time or anywhere in the five-state region.

“It takes a certain mindset to do emergency response and be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since you never know when you’re going to get called out, we understand if sometimes somebody can’t go. But over the years, I’ve seen people give up kid’s graduations, Christmases and birthday parties,” Stump said. “Not once in the history of the program have we ever not been able to respond to an incident that we were called out for.”

Sandia’s RAP team also spearheaded a standardized week-long training program for all RAP responders nationwide, delivering the Radiological Assistance Program Training Emergency Response (RAPTER) class and leading three or four trainings each year.

RAPTER includes hands-on instruction on new equipment and small-scale drills. The week ends with an intense one-and-a-half day exercise in which participants respond to complex scenarios throughout Albuquerque using non-hazardous materials.

A spin-off is the international RAPTER class, in which Sandia helps to train more than 1,000 first responders worldwide from China, South Africa, the African nation of Djibouti and more than 50 other countries. The training can be specialized for port and customs officials or for major public events, such as the Olympics or the World Cup.

Sandia’s RAP team also trains local and state first responders how to use radiation detectors to locate and identify sources of radiation.

Between trainings, public events and accidents, RAP team members miss a lot of weekends at home and can be away from work and family for weeks at a time. “The biggest thrill is when you get to the end of the event and nobody was hurt. They’ve enjoyed the Super Bowl or World Series and they’re going home happy and you’re going home happy because nothing bad has happened,” Stump said. “But just the fact that we’re out there and help ensure nothing happens, that is probably the most significant high point that you get.”

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