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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Securing the Cities: Agencies Working Together to Detect Dangerous Radiological Materials

By Deputy Inspector Stuart Cameron, Commanding Officer, Special Patrol Bureau, Suffolk County Police Department, Ronkonkoma, New York

On September 27, 2006, the SCPD conducted a full-scale radiation detection exercise funded by New York State to test the capabilities of the department’s Preventive Radiation Detection Program. The exercise consisted of a commercial vehicle checkpoint. A small radioactive source was brought through the checkpoint to test detection and response capabilities.

Photos courtesy of the SCPD

he Suffolk County, New York, Police Department (SCPD) is the 18th largest police department in the United States, with over 2,700 sworn members. It serves the nearly 1.5 million citizens of Suffolk County, which is located on Long Island approximately 20 miles away from the border of Queens County, New York City.

In January 2005, the SCPD began a preventive radiological detection program. The timing of this effort was not haphazard or arbitrary. Suffolk County was working diligently to enhance regional homeland security in a logical and pragmatic way. Because the SCPD’s homeland security efforts were enhanced after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the department initially focused on the most likely threat facing the region, namely, a terrorist attack utilizing energetic materials. For example, the vast majority of terrorist attacks worldwide have used explosive materials. Efforts were undertaken by training personnel to enhance both the preventive and the response strategies for dealing with explosives and to improve the capabilities of the department’s bomb squad, which is the second largest in New York State.

The philosophy guiding all of the SCPD’s homeland security strategies took into account a regional approach to counterterrorism. It was recognized that although Suffolk County might not be a primary target for a terrorist attack, it is more likely that potential terrorists could plan or launch an attack from Suffolk County, due to its proximity to New York City. In fact, the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 conducted some of their preoperational training within the county, and the September 11 attackers also spent time there just before their attacks. Many of the recent worldwide terrorist attacks, including the July 2005 attack on the London subway system, were plotted from the suburbs outside of major cities. Without a doubt, it was in the region’s best interest to work cooperatively to protect New York City from another terrorist attack.

Once the department’s strategy to increase its capabilities to prevent and respond to an attack that uses explosives was implemented and under way, attention was turned to other attack methods that are less likely but still of significant concern. A comprehensive homeland security program cannot overlook any threat, and it has been widely reported that al Qaeda’s intent to attack the United States using a weapon of mass destruction has not diminished with the passage of time. Though less likely than an attack using conventional explosives, an attack with radiological or nuclear materials would clearly be catastrophic and, as time passed, some experts theorized that the odds of an attempted attack using this type of weapon would likely increase.1 Continued and unrelenting efforts by U.S. adversaries to obtain this type of weapon might eventually allow them to attempt an attack of this nature. As a result, the threat of a radiological dispersal device, commonly known as a dirty bomb, or an improvised nuclear device had to be addressed.

The SCPD had personnel trained to respond to incidents involving radiation, but these officers were assigned to special operations commands, primarily the department’s Emergency Service Section. There was very little capability, training, or equipment to detect, interdict, and potentially prevent an attack that used radioactive materials. Additionally, there was minimal understanding about the effects of radiation among nonspecialized patrol forces. Many urban departments had established preventive radiological programs, but this capability was lacking in most suburban departments. A comprehensive, proactive strategy to prevent the illicit use of radiological materials within Suffolk County had to be built from the ground up. Fortunately, some time after Suffolk County began its program, additional assistance was made available in the form of an invitation to a regionwide pilot program called Securing the Cities.

First Efforts in Suffolk County

Patrol officers across the county—from each of the SCPD’s precincts and patrol bureaus as well as the county’s town, village, and university police departments—were invited to participate in this effort to blanket the county thoroughly with radiation detectors and leave no safe haven for terrorists to build weapons with radiological components. Implementing this strategy required a lengthy, technical effort, since there were few existing suburban programs to provide guidance or best practices.

Figure 1. An SCPD officer uses a radioscope identification device during the 2006 SCPD radiation detection exercise.

The Suffolk County preventive radiological detection program incorporated several overriding philosophical tenets right from the onset. Comprehensive radiological training was imperative and mandatory (see figure 1). No officers would be issued equipment that they had not been thoroughly trained to operate, and every effort would be made to minimize the inconvenience and disruption that the program might cause to county residents. The program acknowledged many legitimate uses of radiological materials in the county, noting that by far the primary radiological detection event law enforcement officers would encounter would be innocent people who were briefly radioactive due to nuclear medicine treatments. The SCPD’s research discovered that some departments had issued radiological detection equipment to their personnel with little or no training, and at times, this had led to poor results. In one case, a man who had undergone a nuclear medicine treatment had been strip-searched due to a lack of training and understanding about sources of radioactive materials.2 Ultimately, Suffolk County successfully trained personnel and deployed hundreds of pager-sized personal radiation detectors across the entire area. The county had developed the ability to search for illicit materials 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There are many legitimate uses of radiological materials, such as for medical treatment. Proper training allows officers to distinguish between legitimate and illegal uses of radiation.

As Suffolk County worked to develop its program, many other independent efforts were under way with similar intentions. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) continued to develop its extensive counterterrorism strategies throughout the city, including a well-developed program to detect and interdict radiological materials within the city. New York State was also working on a program to protect the state from the illicit use of radiological materials, by training and equipping members of the New York State Police and other state agencies.

Role of the DNDO

In April 2005, National Security Presidential Directive 43/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 14 established a new national office staffed by personnel from the Department of State, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Justice.3 The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) provided a single accountable office with the dedicated responsibility of developing the global nuclear detection architecture and supporting a domestic detection system capable of preventing a radiological or nuclear attack from taking place within the United States. It was recognized that any single strategy could not be 100 percent effective, so multiple initiatives had to be developed.

The DNDO worked with other federal agencies to increase the ability to secure potentially hostile source materials overseas; to increase detection capabilities at U.S. border crossings and cargo ports; and, as a last line of defense, to increase the capabilities to detect and interdict source materials within the United States. Efforts were made to accelerate several technology development programs and to enlist state and local law enforcement personnel to supplement existing federal, regional, and state assets.

Deployment of personal radiation detectors provides officers the ability to search for illicit materials 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Figure 2. The STC program's Thermo Scientific Radeye PRD

To engage local law enforcement agencies in the relatively new Preventive Radiological Nuclear Detection Mission, the DNDO developed a curriculum of training courses to educate and prepare state and local personnel. These new courses would supplement the existing curriculum of courses taught by the Counter-Terrorism Operational Support (CTOS) staff that educate local first responders about radiation and how to respond safely to an incident involving radioactive materials. The Personal Radiation Detector (PRD) course was the first to be developed. Its objective is to train officers on how to operate their chosen model of PRD properly and how to resolve detection events successfully. The PRD course was piloted in Suffolk County and approved for a national rollout in 2006.

The next course to be developed and approved was the Detector Equipped Law Enforcement (DELE) course. This course is designed to train law enforcement personnel to use Radio-Isotope Identification Devices (RIIDs) to identify radioactive isotopes. Rapid and effective identification of radioactive isotopes, a critical aspect of the strategy, enables officers to evaluate properly the threats posed by unidentified radioactive materials. Finally, the most sophisticated course under development by the DNDO is the Advanced Radiation Detection (ARD) course. This course will train law enforcement personnel to operate equipment that was previously used primarily by federal or regional response assets. This training will allow attendees to plan and execute increasingly sophisticated operations, specifically for special event screening.

Securing the Cities Pilot Initiative

Preventing potentially dangerous materials from entering the United States through border crossings and cargo ports is a top priority for the DNDO; however, as stated earlier, no single program can be 100 percent effective. The DNDO also recognizes the need to enhance the capability to detect potentially dangerous radioactive materials within the borders of the United States. The Southeast Transportation Corridor Pilot Program and the Securing the Cities (STC) program are two pilot programs that address this concern.

How the STC Program Works: STC is a pilot initiative to increase radiation detection and response capabilities around the United States’ highest-risk urban areas. The first pilot region chosen for STC was the area surrounding New York City. The main idea behind STC is to enlist the aid of regional law enforcement agencies around major cities to push radiation detection far out beyond these cities’ borders. Pushing out the detection capacity also means that an attack plan could potentially be discovered sooner, as many recent attacks on major cities have been planned from the suburbs. Early detection of radioactive materials could potentially allow an interdiction even before the completion of a radiological weapon. This capability is especially important considering the proliferation of the philosophy of suicide terrorism. Terrorists bent on attacking with a radiological device could be likely to trigger the device when compromised by a law enforcement agency, even if the device had not yet been delivered to the target location and activating it would result in the terrorists’ deaths. It is highly unlikely that they would peacefully surrender. Detection of a radiological dispersal device once it is already within a targeted city does not leave many successful tactical options open to law enforcement agencies.

The importance of early intervention in plots involving radiological materials cannot be understated. Imagine a home security system that would alert homeowners when burglars were still some distance away from their homes, maybe even before the criminals had left to commit the crime, rather than after they had already gained entry, as a typical alarm system does. This is similar to the protection that STC provides to the city of New York: early warning while the threat is still a distance away and there is still time to interdict it safely and prevent an attack, rather than simply mitigating it and suffering the consequences. STC provides regional partner agencies with a way to discover those who might exploit their communities as the launching ground for another attack against New York. STC allows New York to leverage the surrounding law enforcement agencies as a force multiplier in its counterterrorism efforts.

Figure 3. SCPD officer wearing the STC PRD in his belt
Setting Up in New York: In 2006, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, approached New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg about participating in the first pilot of the STC initiative. The NYPD was very interested in participating in this program to enhance the city’s ability to prevent a radiological or nuclear attack within the city; in fact, the department committed over three million dollars of existing grant money to fund the equipment that was purchased for STC in 2007. The NYPD also volunteered to facilitate and expedite the rollout of the program by purchasing the STC equipment and distributing it to the regional partner agencies. The vast size of the NYPD and its robust purchasing capability enabled it to facilitate this purchase and distribution process. Much of the equipment the NYPD received was distributed to the regional partners and in many cases field deployed within just a few weeks. This was by no means an easy task—indicative of the NYPD’s strong commitment to this program.

The first batch of equipment purchased through STC was configured into 18 identical caches. This worked well because it provided a basis for each area in the region on which to build, while rapidly creating standardized sets of equipment for the regional partners. Combined, the 18 caches contained hundreds of PRDs and dosimeters, as well as numerous mobile detection systems and kits containing RIIDs and radiation survey meters with alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron radiation probes. These caches built the foundation for STC and strengthened the region’s capabilities quickly and substantially.

Several committees were established to provide guidance and to develop the regional concept of operations for the STC program. In keeping with the DNDO’s desire to make STC a regional program facilitated but not directed by the NYPD, most of the committee chairs were selected from among the regional partner agencies. Initially, three subcommittees were established: Concept of Operations, Training and Exercises, and Equipment. As work progressed, the number of subcommittees and working groups grew, as did the level of participation from the regional partner agencies.

Pilot Program Results: Some thought that the STC initiative might fail because the necessary regional cooperation could not be built among the myriad of state, county, and local agencies required to support this program. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth. The first pilot of STC in the New York City region required the cooperation and unity of law enforcement agencies across three states (New York State, Connecticut, and New Jersey), including hundreds of agencies. This initiative included some of the nation’s largest departments along with some containing only a handful of personnel. As STC began to roll out through the region, cooperation and unity followed. A diverse group of law enforcement agencies came together to find out what they could do to support the program, rather than what they would gain from it. Many of those involved in STC believe this almost spontaneous support and cooperation to be the best aspect of the program.

Two letters were sent to the U.S. Congress requesting that the 2008 fiscal year funding appropriations to support the STC initiative be approved. Both these letters were signed by 19 heads of agencies spanning the three host states. The first letter was drafted, reviewed, signed, and sent in a matter of days to prevent imminent funding cuts; fortunately, it was successful in preventing the funding from being cut at that juncture. The 2008 appropriations have now been approved. It remains to be seen if this level of cooperation can be achieved elsewhere or whether it will be unique to the New York area.

STC has not only provided the region with a common purpose; it has established standardized and uniform operational and reporting procedures, alarm settings, documentation requirements, equipment caches, training requirements, intelligence sharing, units of measure, and a coordinated deployment strategy. All this was executed in an unprecedented, multistate effort. It is hoped that this level of coordination and cooperation will result in a web of radiological detection that is virtually impenetrable, due to the efforts of all those involved. STC will, without a doubt, result in a significant threat reduction in the participating region.

As an example, on August 10, 2007, intelligence was obtained that al Qaeda was planning to attack New York City with a radiological truck bomb. This intelligence resulted in an immediate, coordinated, regionwide deployment of radiological detection equipment. This increased level of deployment continued until the threat underwent further analysis and was determined not to be credible; however, the response demonstrated that STC can work and that the regional partner agencies are fully committed to this initiative.

The STC initiative has allowed agencies that did not have a preventive radiological detection program to get up to speed much more rapidly than they could have done on their own. These agencies were able to learn from others that had programs in place and willingly offered their guidance, experience, and procedures. Even agencies that already had fairly robust preventive radiation detection programs were able to improve them within the STC collaborative environment. Agencies quickly learned that one unified regionwide program is far superior to several stand-alone programs.

Benefits of STC

Figure 4. SCPD Officer Katzen using the STC PRD
Deploying radiation detection equipment throughout a region on a daily basis will certainly increase the odds of a cold interdiction (one in which no advance intelligence has been distributed) of a dangerous device containing radiation. Law enforcement personnel have been successful with cold interdictions of terrorist plots in the past. A program that combines police experienced in detecting suspicious behavior, training about radiation, and sensitive detection equipment is likely to be a recipe for success. Radiation awareness training alone—in which officers learn about the signs and symptoms of radiation sickness, materials that might be used for shielding radiation, and placarding signage—has increased the odds that something might be uncovered. The program hopes to deter terrorists from adding radiation to an improvised explosive or other weapon by making it more a liability than an enhancement for those planning an attack, in that radioactive material might make a less-detectable explosive device discoverable.

Institutionalizing the preventive radiation/nuclear detection mission within the law enforcement community will take time. Most law enforcement personnel probably feel that this specialized training was not part of the job description when they began their careers. But as equipment comes to be deployed and used on a daily basis, personnel will refine their skills and see this mission as just another aspect of their jobs. In many respects, this program is being built from the ground up. If highly credible intelligence came in that a radiological attack on one or more U.S. cities was imminent, how could this threat be effectively addressed without the involvement of local agencies? It could not. As adversaries of the United States continue to work on acquiring radiological or nuclear weapons, U.S. law enforcement agencies must continue to work on strategies to counter this threat. The longer terrorists work to acquire these materials, the greater the likelihood of their success. The law enforcement community does not have the luxury of waiting for the threat to increase before taking definitive action to prevent an attack.

Suffolk County has benefited tremendously from its participation in STC. The addition of state-of-the-art detection equipment and additional training has moved Suffolk’s program along far more rapidly than it would have on its own. Working closely with other law enforcement agencies and federal subject matter experts has also helped refine Suffolk’s existing program. Lessons learned from post–September 11 analysis show that interagency cooperation and coordination are the keys to the successful prevention or detection of future attacks. The STC program has unified many independent efforts and rapidly created a capability where none existed before, thereby establishing a vital interagency collaboration in the region surrounding New York City. ?


1See Michael A. Levi and Graham T. Allison, “Online Debate: How Likely Is a Nuclear Terrorist Attack on the United States?” Council of Foreign Relations, April 20, 2007, (accessed September 17, 2008).
2Kalyan Kumar Gangopadhyay, Francis Sundram, and Parijat De, “Triggering Radiation Alarms after Radioiodine Treatment,” Practice: Lesson of the Week, British Medical Journal 333 (August 2006): 293, (accessed September 12, 2008).
3White House, “National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-43, Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-14: Subject: Domestic Nuclear Detection,” (accessed September 9, 2008).

SCPD Radiation Training

The SCPD uses a three-tiered response paradigm within its Preventive Radiation Detection Program. Tier 3 contains the greatest number of personnel. The officers in this tier are spread throughout the county. Their mission is one of awareness and gross detection capability; essentially, they look for radioactive materials on a daily basis. Once radioactive materials are discovered, Tier 3 officers use their training to determine if the materials could be used for hostile purposes. Generally, this mission is performed in conjunction with officers’ other standard duties and simply involves receiving the proper training and wearing a personal radiation detector (PRD) on their duty belts. Officers tasked with this mission are trained in the fundamentals of radiation through one of three response courses offered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration Counter Terrorism Operations Support (CTOS). The vast majority have received a six-hour awareness level course called WMD Radiological/Nuclear Awareness Course (AWR-140). The awareness course can be delivered with local instructors who have properly completed the nine-hour CTOS WMD Radiological/Nuclear Awareness Train the Trainer Course (AWR-141). Suffolk County has trained instructors and delivers the awareness course in house. Hundreds of officers within the department have received this awareness level training.

The awareness training is meant to foster understanding about the fundamentals of radiation and thereby reduce apprehension or fear of the unknown and to increase awareness. Personnel who will be issued a PRD must attend an additional seven-hour PRD course (PER-243). This course trains officers how to operate the specific PRDs that they are issued and how to deploy them properly for law enforcement use.

A smaller group of officers from the department’s special operation commands comprises the department’s Tier 2 assets. These officers are able to identify radioactive isotopes through the use of radioisotope identification devices (RIIDs). Tier 3 operators who cannot resolve an event are trained to call on the Tier 2 assets to assist with the resolution. Like their Tier 3 counterparts, these officers receive response training so that they understand the fundamentals of radioactivity. Tier 2 officers receive the highest level of response training, a 32-hour course called the Radiological/Nuclear Course for Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) Technicians (PER-241). This course is given at the CTOS Nevada Test Site. A 24-hour operations-level response course, WMD Radiological/Nuclear Responder Operations Course (PER-240), is also available from CTOS for those personnel who are not hazmat technicians. After the department’s Tier 2 assets have received training to operate their PRDs, they then receive training to operate the RIID. RIID training is provided by the 24-hour CTOS Detection Equipment for Law Enforcement (DELE) course (PER-244). This training also covers how to conduct reachback by sending spectral files electronically for further analysis.

If the department’s Tier 2 assets cannot resolve an incident, Tier 1 assets are called in. Tier 1 assets are state or federal assets consisting of health physicists or other scientists. Fortunately for Suffolk County, Brookhaven National Laboratory is located within the county’s borders, so prompt Tier 1 access is readily available.

Other advanced training is under development, including the week-long Advanced Radiation Detection (ARD) course. Suffolk County hosted the second national pilot program of this course in October 2007. The ARD course will train law enforcement personnel to operate backpack detectors, vehicle-mounted mobile detection systems, and advanced RIIDs.

Since the interdiction of radiological materials is a new task for local law enforcement agencies, proper training is one essential element for any successful program. Most of this training is available for free; agencies who are interested in receiving this training should notify their state point of contact.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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