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I magine a world without power, computers, radios and telephones. More specifically, imagine modern emergency response without any of the above. Americans have come to rely on the prompt and effective delivery of fire, police, rescue and emergency medical services, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks renewed focus among all levels of emergency services on preventing, training for and responding to terrorism events, including nuclear attacks.
Little emphasis has been put on electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, but consider that the report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) contends the biggest failure was one of imagination – no one imagined that terrorists would do what they did on 9/11. Similarly, few Americans can conceive that terrorists could bring our society to its knees by destroying everything we rely on that runs on electricity.
The fire service must address the topic of an EMP attack and the potential impacts to the delivery of fire and EMS services. It must be able to answer the following questions:
• What is the reality that an EMP attack on the U.S. would affect fire and EMS services?
• How does the government view this threat?
• How would an EMP attack effect fire and EMS communications?
• What would be the effect on emergency vehicles that are electronically and computer driven?
• What type of EMP preparedness planning is taking place at the federal level that could assist the fire service in planning for such an attack?
Early tests of EMP
As early as 1962, the U.S. inadvertently observed the effects of EMP during U.S and Soviet cold war atmospheric test programs. The Starfish program nuclear detonation, which was not intended to generate EMP effects, did just that. When the U.S. detonated a nuclear bomb 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands – 870 miles away – experienced effects that included failure of street lights, tripping of circuit breakers and burglar alarms and damage to a telecommunications relay facility. That year, the Soviets initiated similar tests at altitudes of 35, 95 and 185 miles, resulting in damage to overhead and underground electrical cables and to other power supply breakdowns as far as 370 miles from the testing site. The U.S. and Soviet atmospheric test programs initiated nuclear detonations through the use of “e-bomb” technology. The e-bomb is also known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. In such weapons electric current produces magnetic fields, and changing magnetic fields induce electric current.
EMP is an electromagnetic radiation typically generated by a nuclear explosion or a solar event. Both produce damaging electrical current or voltage surges capable of temporary or permanently destroying unshielded electrical and electronic systems. (Solar events are beyond the scope of this article, but must be considered a risk in any damage-prevention planning.) Nuclear-caused EMP, on the other hand, is an emerging threat whose potential must be understood.
EMP generated by a nuclear event consists of three components – E1, E2 and E3. The E1 component is very brief, but intense, and can quickly induce very high voltages in electrical conductors. E1 causes most of its damage by exceeding the electrical voltage of affected equipment, destroying computers and communications equipment. The energy generated by E1 changes so rapidly that ordinary lightning protectors are ineffective against it. The E2 component has many similarities to the EMP generated by lightning, and its intensity is defined by the proximity of the pulse to electrical equipment. Due to its similarities to lightning and the available lightning protection technology, E2 is generally considered to be the easiest to protect against. The main problem with the E2 component is that it immediately follows the E1 component, which may have already damaged devices that could protect against E2.