Law Enforcement Goes High-Tech To Locate Potential Radiological Threats

OSWEGO, NY – Several state and federal law enforcement agencies will take part in a drill Tuesday on Lake Ontario.

Today (Sept. 19) New York State Police officials announced the continuation of an upstate program to enhance state and local law enforcement’s capabilities to detect and interdict radiological material before it can be used in a weapon by would-be terrorists. The training exercise has been dubbed “Operation Steelhead.”

Members of NYSP and DEC Police made the announcement at the Oswego Coast Guard Station. A tour of their vessels and display of the high-tech equipment followed. They were joined by representatives of the Coast Guard, Border Patrol and FBI.

NYSP Sgt. Richard Bytner displayed some of the equipment that officers are using to detect potential radiation threats
NYSP Sgt. Richard Bytner displayed some of the equipment that officers are using to detect potential radiation threats.

“An important component of New York State’s Homeland Security Strategy is to provide first responders – the men and women who are our front line of defense – with the equipment and training they need to protect the citizens of this state against weapons of mass destruction. Federal grant funding to the state, managed by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, has allowed equipment acquisition, training, and exercises to be conducted by the state law enforcement community to bolster their capabilities to combat radiological threats across the Empire State,” according to the commander of Troop D.

“This is not to be construed as there being a threat to the Oswego area, or that the government believes terrorists will attempt to smuggle radiological materials by this method. This is simply an example of law enforcement exploring all the potential threats vectors that a terrorist could pose and making the appropriate preparations to interdict these activities,” he added.

Some of the equipment purchased with the grant funds are personal radiation detectors, radio-isotope identi-finders, survey meters and backpacks containing sensitive detectors, he said.

State Police have received extensive training in the use of this equipment; the exercise will help police to continue familiarizing themselves with the use of the equipment, he added.

“The detection and interdiction of illicit radiological material is now a necessary component of modern policing. These radiological detection technologies are integral tools in thwarting potential terrorist activities,” the commander said. “The New York State Police and their partners now have the ability to actively seek out and detect radiation source material in the community, which is the first step in preventing a terrorist attack.”

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the New York State Police, along with other federal, state, and local response agencies have inherited the responsibility to deploy effective measures to protect citizens against weapons of mass destruction.

The State Police will assist other police agencies state-wide that maybe seeking to acquire and use this equipment, he pointed out.

This program was launched in 2006 by the New York Office of Homeland Security using federal grant funds to purchase and deploy radiation detection equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Beginning in 2007, the New York State Police has orchestrated numerous exercises with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the state to further develop the capability to detect and interdict a terrorist seeking to use radiological materials as a weapon of mass destruction. To date, exercises have been conducted in Erie County, Onondaga County, Monroe County, Delaware County and the New York City region.

On Tuesday, State Police, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Coast Guard and the United States Border Patrol will conduct a joint training exercise in Oswego Harbor to test their ability to interdict radioactive material being transported by a vessel.

The director of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Police, said that under the NYS Radiation interdiction protocol, DEC Police have been given the responsibility for maritime radiological security.

Their boats have been fitted with specialized state-of-the-art equipment that can detect radioactive material that could be used as a terrorist weapon.

“This exercise continues to demonstrate the commitment of all agencies involved to the safety of our citizens and the security of our northern border,” the director said.

Sgt. Richard Bytner displayed some of the equipment that will be put to the test on Tuesday.

The personal detector, the size of a pager, can be worn on an officer’s belt and detects gamma radiation “and allows us to see something is there, something we were never able to see before,” he explained.

Another device allows them to check the “fingerprint” of the radiation to check and see just how much of a threat it might be. Could it be something used for a bomb, or is it some medical treatment for a patient, he explained.

They also have a probe that expands to 12 feet in order to check hard to reach areas.

The detecting equipment in the backpacks can be used separately, on a boat or vehicle or used hand-held.

The State Police has eight vehicles outfitted with the device currently and is looking to add another four this year, Bytner said.

“The DEC is using the same equipment the State Police is using on the highways and we’ve configured it to work in a maritime environment,” Sgt. Walter Maloney explained.

The backpack with the detector inside is connected to computer display screens on their boats that alerts officer when radiation is discovered.

If the alarm is activated, the identi-finder alerts officers as to what they’re dealing with and how to proceed, Maloney said.

“It’ll tell you, if it’s a medical isotope, an industrial isotope or if it’s potential threat material,” he said.

“A dirty bomb (explosion) wouldn’t be your typical nuclear bomb mushroom cloud fallout that everybody associates with radiation. It’s going to be contamination of the area as well as the radiation that will deny access to the area,” he continued. “So, if you set one of these off in Wall Street, then you deny access to Wall Street a good length of time and that’s going to create havoc in the US.”

The DEC has the detectors mounted on their vessels from the New York City area out to Buffalo.

“We are doing our traditional fish and wildlife mission at the same we have this equipment mounted on our boats that allows us to monitor any traffic we may come across where there is potential smuggling of a radioactive source,” he said.

Tuesday’s drill will be rather boring to watch, officials said. People will just see some law enforcement boats floating on the water, they noted.

The scenario, according to Maloney, will be an attempt to smuggle radioactive source into the US from Canada.

“The ‘bad guys’ are going to be using a boat to transport that material. Partners between ourselves, State Police, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and the FBI will set up a maritime task force choke point on Lake Ontario. That’s going to allow us to screen all vessels that are entering the harbor,” Maloney said.

If any radiation is detected, officials will perform a secondary screening in which they actually will board the suspect boat and interact with those on the boat, he added.