In a dark warehouse near the Honolulu International Airport, there is a truck that looks like an ambulance but acts more like a mobile biohazards lab.

It’s where the city keeps some of its radiation detectors, which Emergency Services Director James Ireland says are ready to be deployed should the State Department of Health and federal government ask them to.

“It has two functions,” Ireland said of the vehicle that houses the detectors. “It’s a virtual command center, and it does all the detections for nuclear radiation, biological and chemical warfare.”

The vehicle is what’s called a CBRNE Unit, and the acronym refers to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards, and would be deployed during a terrorist attack or other disasters where mass casualties are possible. Inside, there are computers, monitors, lamps, a glass-encased lab station and all of the necessary equipment to detect anthrax, ricin and radiation.


Photo credit: Adrienne LaFrance/Civil Beat

The latter is of particular interest to Hawaii officials, who are now monitoring the nuclear crisis in Japan and tracking weather patterns that could carry a radioactive plume toward the Islands.

“We’re in touch with the experts in weather who are monitoring this, and they feel that this isn’t going to be an issue for Hawaii,” Ireland said. “We believe them. But at the same time, we want people to know we’re ready to provide that aspect of reassurance, so they will not worry about this.”

The radiation detectors look like steel emergency radios. They’re portable but heavy, like a large battery, and can be connected to devices that look like walkie talkies, and convey air quality readings. It means, if necessary, the detectors could be deployed across the island and monitored remotely while tracked for tampering with video surveillance.

The CBRNE Unit can also link directly to the FBI. Ireland said, for security reasons, he can’t disclose how many radiation detectors are on Oahu, but the city’s collection is part of a larger stock also held by military and fire officials.

A spokeswoman at Tripler Army Medical Center told Civil Beat that the Army is coordinating with appropriate federal agencies and “subject matter experts,” as well as the Department of Health.

If officials detect dangerous levels of radiation in the Islands, Ireland said the city would follow the State Health Department’s lead on instructing the public and distributing iodine if necessary.

State Health Department officials on Monday issued a statement that said it had “not detected any elevated radiation readings” and “no public health risk to the state is expected.” The Health Department said in that statement that it is working with federal agencies to continue monitoring radioactive dust, and ensuring medical stockpiles are adequate.

In the meantime, Ireland said the city is prepared to handle threats to public health that Ireland said are more likely. The possibility of a volcanic eruption reducing air quality, for example.

“We can use this equipment to detect vog,” Ireland said. “If there are hazardous volcanic emissions coming toward Oahu, we can deploy it, and make sure the appropriate steps are taken.”

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