Rade Curcic – Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Specialist


Please tell us about yourself in a few words. What country do you come from? And what is the correct way to pronounce your name?

I can start with how to pronounce my first name: Rah-deh. I am Serbian. I currently live in the beautiful old town of Herceg Novi, on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. I am married and have three children, a son and two daughters. Serbia and Montenegro used to be one country, but they separated peacefully in 2006. I have been living in Montenegro for the past 22 years.

How did your career in CBRN response start?

I began my military career carrying out the basic duties of a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence Officer within the CBRN Brigade in Serbia. I was then assigned to duty in Montenegro, in a specialized CBRN unit within the Navy.

How has your career evolved since then?

After serving as a military observer in the United Nations Mission in Liberia for three-and-a-half years, I returned home and joined the General Staff of the Armed Forces. There I performed many duties, but the position I found most satisfying was that of Head of the CBRN Branch. Working at a strategic level, I oversaw the training and exercises of a specialized CBRN unit and evaluated the CBRN-response capacity of other military units.

I also supervised the equipping of units with personal and collective protective gear, detection and dosimetry equipment, specialized CBRN vehicles and other systems. In cooperation with the civil sector, I organized and took part in various national and international crisis management exercises. An essential scenario in  these activities involved managing a CBRN event and its consequences. I was also a member of the National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention and the national contact person for the Biological Weapons Convention.

When did you join the ICRC and how have your assignments been so far?

I left the military and joined the ICRC after a rigorous selection process, including language tests and panel interviews. In April 2019, I was sent on my first posting as a CBRN specialist to Ukraine. I was stationed at the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Mariupol, from where I covered the other sub-delegations in Severodonetsk, Slovyansk, Donetsk and Luhansk, the office in Odesa and the delegation in Kyiv. This first assignment in Ukraine ended in July 2021. After the escalation of the conflict in February 2022, I became part of the ICRC’s Rapid Deployment Team. My role as a CBRN specialist at the ICRC has since been extended until August 2023.

What does a CBRN specialist at the ICRC do, and what does a typical working day look like?

CBRN specialists can perform a wide range of activities. As a result, there is practically no such thing as a typical working day. In my current job, everything I do pursues three main objectives. The first is familiarizing ICRC staff and partner organizations (such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Ukrainian Red Cross Society, and the National Societies of other countries working in Ukraine) with CBRN hazards and training them in how to apply the available protection measures. This involves online and face-to-face briefings, hands-on training in the use of protective and other equipment, and the development of shelter-in-place instructions and evacuation procedures. In addition to regular CBRN training, we also hold customized sessions at the request of ICRC sub-delegations and partners.

Another objective of my work is CBRN analysis, hazard identification and mapping. This involves identifying hazards and assessing risks, preparing detailed documents on potentially hazardous facilities in different regions, providing recommendations to ICRC management, other colleagues and partners, and visiting these potentially dangerous facilities (if possible).

The third objective is to help and support emergency services in building up their capacity to respond to CBRN accidents. This entails carrying out needs assessments, providing CBRN and other related equipment, and organizing CBRN and other joint training.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in the field?

The activities carried out by CBRN specialists in Ukraine today are very particular, and some require extremely detailed preparation and work. Before the escalation of the conflict, our focus was mainly on facilities within the Donbas region, near the line of contact between the warring parties, because of the risk of chemical accidents there. After the escalation of the conflict last year, many other hazardous-material facilities came under threat, and nuclear power plants have since become our focus of concern. This is especially true of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located in Enerhodar near the city of Zaporizhzhia, as a critical infrastructure facility that is relatively close to the line of contact and possibly exposed to shelling.

One aspect of a CBRN specialist’s work is supporting ICRC management in preparing for CBRN-related risks, as part of our duty-of-care process. In coordination with headquarters in Geneva, we thus coordinated the development of a plan of action for ICRC staff working in Ukraine in the event of a nuclear or radiological incident or accident.

Following consultations with various stakeholders from the management and the Security and Crisis Management Support Unit, a draft nuclear/radiological contingency plan was adopted. To check its soundness, we organized so-called tabletop exercises with each of the sub-delegations in Ukraine. During these exercises, we played certain situations through all phases of the adopted plan. We then instructed the sub-delegations to prepare their own plans with all the specifics related to their areas of responsibility and to familiarize their staff with the plans’ contents. In parallel, we organized the procurement of the necessary personal protective equipment for our staff and other useful items (dosimeters, survey metres, etc.) to implement this contingency plan. This will perhaps prove to be one of the most memorable experiences of my career as a CBRN specialist, because of the complexity of the problem and the potential scale of the consequences if this kind of event were to occur.

What is the most exciting/interesting part of your job?

The most interesting and rewarding aspect for me is the dialogue with the people benefiting from our projects. Although the principles of response to a CBRN event are similar in many countries, the quality of the response depends on many factors, and our support requires a thorough understanding of how the CBRN-response entities (civil defence, ambulance services, hospitals, etc.) are organized in the host country. Based on our knowledge and experience and in dialogue with all involved, we identify ways to improve procedures, equipment or training and propose tailored capacity-building activities in line with the resources available. It‘s a great feeling when you deliver equipment, complete the required training and see the appreciation and gratitude of the professionals on the other side. You know that the ICRC has helped make them at least a little safer as they carry out their demanding and important work.

What is your least favourite part of working in the field?

My least favourite part is dealing with the worry fuelled by the media regarding CBRN incidents. Fear of something unknown, unseen or unusual is quite normal for human beings. Nevertheless, panic-raising by certain media, “keyboard warriors” or unprofessional individuals adds to people’s suffering in a war environment. Therefore, as CBRN specialists, we have to explain to our staff and partners the importance of taking care not to over- or underestimate the consequences of such hazardous releases. In the event of a chemical or nuclear/radiological accident, in the vast majority of cases, there are ways to stay safe. The most important of them is to be prepared and well-informed.

How does working at the ICRC differ from other places you have worked before?

The main difference is our neutrality and impartiality. Of course, things are never perfect. However, in most places where the ICRC works around the world, we have access to most of the conflict parties and permission to operate in the territories controlled by them, thanks to this neutrality and impartiality. Most organizations do not have this possibility and work mainly on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict, or their activities are limited. These fundamental principles enable us to reach places that would otherwise be out of bounds and so to help the communities that are most in need.

How does the ICRC help keep you safe while you are out in the field handling potentially dangerous materials?

From the perspective of the Weapon Contamination Unit, our activities in Ukraine are the most complex to manage because, in addition to CBRN specialists, we have expert colleagues here working on conventional-weapons issues and risk awareness and safer behaviour. All of us together are doing our best to raise awareness of the possible threats to the lives and health of our colleagues and partners and to provide them with guidelines on how to behave and react in the field. This is the foundation for keeping everyone safe. Thanks to close cooperation between our Weapon Contamination Coordinator here in Ukraine, the CBRN Adviser and all our colleagues from the Weapon Contamination Unit in Geneva, and the Logistics Department as a whole, we have managed to provide high-quality equipment to CBRN specialists and ICRC staff in general. This includes emergency self-protection and decontamination kits, twin-port respirators, protective suits, FFP3 masks, appropriate detection and dosimetry equipment, and other accompanying material. The Ukraine delegation has developed stringent safety and security regulations and procedures that should be followed to the letter. Of course, it must be borne in mind that unexpected situations may arise from time to time and that there is no perfect document that will lay down the behaviour and actions to adopt in all situations.

What qualities and skills would you say are crucial for working in the Weapon Contamination Unit, and specifically in CBRN?

It is essential to have a good awareness and understanding of the fundamental principles of the ICRC. We are neutral and impartial. We do not take sides and must be ready to help everyone in need. This should be the first thing in the mind of anyone applying to work for the ICRC, regardless of the department. As for the specific field of weapon contamination/CBRN, applicants need to have the relevant education and qualifications. For example, I received the required training at the CBRN Military Academy in Serbia and later during my master’s studies, but this is just one of the possible ways. Good candidates for this job can be crisis managers with appropriate CBRN experience or professionals working in civilian CBRN first-response units, fire services, medical facilities, laboratories, etc. Also, to avoid the awkward situation of underestimating your local counterparts, you must be able to look at the bigger picture when providing support. You need to know the context of the country you are working in, look at the entire CBRN event-response system, see how things actually work and understand the different capabilities and limitations. Genuine interest in the problems of people and institutions is key!

What advice would you give fellow CBRN professionals considering a career with the ICRC?

You can find t-shirts on sale with the funny wording: “I’m a CBRN specialist. I solve problems you don’t know you have in ways you can’t understand.” Of course, this is a humorous message. And although the work of a CBRN specialist is truly extraordinary, the goal of our work is exactly the opposite of what it says on the t-shirt. We must familiarize our colleagues and partners with CBRN-related hazards and provide them with information on the measures they should take to protect themselves. We must also provide appropriate support to those we work with (emergency services, medical personnel, and others), to build their capacity to respond to CBRN-related threats. So, I definitely encourage experienced professionals to join the ICRC. If you are a CBRN specialist and meet the requirements laid out in the job description, do not hesitate to apply! I would also recommend that you take the time to keep up to date with the latest equipment for personal and collective protection, detection, dosimetry and other useful items, as well as generally following new trends in the CBRN world. Along with your own personal skills and experience, this will be a key factor in ensuring that we can offer the best possible solutions to people on the ground. In this way, our expertise becomes an added value to the ICRC and helps build the organization’s know-how and reputation in the field of CBRN.

Would you like to follow in Rade's footsteps? Take a look at our Weapon Contamination related positions here.