The sound of the pager buzzing. Repeated, frantic telephone calls to turn on the television. Scenes of terrorist attacks playing in a loop on every news station. Flights cancelled. The nation unified in disbelief. Many Americans have similar experiences about the morning of September 11, 2001.
As the nation began to understand the attack on our country, the FBI called upon the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) to provide technical support to the first responder communities.
RSL organized deployments to major metropolitan locations to provide operational radiation detection capabilities to federal law enforcement, primarily the FBI, the Secret Service and U.S. Coast Guard. RSL also provided support and training to state and local law enforcement, New York Police Department (NYPD), New Jersey State Police and Washington Metro Police.
With all aircraft in the U.S. grounded, RSL-Nellis was granted special permission to fly to New York to conduct aerial photography and multi-spectral mapping of Ground Zero. The multi-spectral mapping images provided first responders with heat map images of the World Trade Center (WTC). For instance, as materials were moved, oxygen would surge in and feed the fires burning in the underground parking garage. Such flare ups made recovery efforts even more dangerous for responders. RSL shared images with New York Fire Department so that fires could be extinguished.
RSL-Joint Base Andrews, then known as Andrews Air Force Base, was deployed as part of the Radiological Assistance Program (RAP) to assist the local Brookhaven, New York RAP Team. Together, they monitored debris for potential radiological sources that may have been in the buildings, presenting a danger to workers after the building collapse.
The Search Response Team, the third RSL-supported mission at the request of the FBI, built and operated seven vans with equipment to detect weapons of mass destruction in several major metropolitan areas to ensure no other cities were targeted.
“RSL has had the nuclear search mission since the 1970s,” said Rhonda Hopkins, who then was serving as the RSL duty manager. “The events of 9/11, while terrifying, were confirmation of the importance of that mission and affirmed that there are parties that exist in the world that seek to hurt the citizens of the U.S. We are here to do what we can using radiological science, engineering and operations to defeat such attempts.”
The Search Response Teams were initially sent to major metropolitan areas for a month-long deployment. Their mission evolved, keeping them on road for the next six months supporting various cities and events such as Mardi Gras, Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve.
The physical demands of working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week while maintaining a constant state of alertness took its toll, but Hopkins recalled how she and others coped. “We became a family with strong bonds during these strenuous situations.”
“This is our job. It’s what we signed up for and everyone went willingly,” she said, reflecting on how important these teams were to the NYPD and the nation’s response teams.
After the initial 9/11 response, the RSL staff continued to protect the nation by providing 24-hour, seven-day per week operations for almost two years in the Washington, D.C. and New York City areas. Today, RSL continues to support major events across the nation and collaborate with law enforcement and military units to help keep Americans safe.