Chief Concerns: Electromagnetic Pulse Awareness for the Fire Service

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.

The E3 component is very different from the other two components of nuclear EMP. An E3 pulse is the most damaging because it lasts the longest and can travel long distances along a power grid, resulting in widespread damage. E3 is a very slow pulse, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, caused by a nuclear detonation disrupting the Earth’s magnetic field. It has the power to damage power grids that could take six to 18 months to repair.


Assessing the threat

Congress established the EMP Commission in 2001 to assess the threat of EMP to the U.S. The commission’s 2004 report states that EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences and that it has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures. The 2004 and 2008 commission reports share a main theme – identifying infrastructure in the U.S. and its vulnerability to EMP and making recommendations to protect against EMP. Each report identifies critical infrastructures, such as electric power, transportation, telecommunications, food, water, banking, government and emergency services. The commission’s report on emergency services relates directly to the impacts of EMP attacks on fire and EMS delivery. One threat to the U.S. is the possibility of a terrorist EMP attack involving a missile deployed from a ship near a busy seaport.

The theory behind electromagnetic pulse is that the higher the nuclear detonation in the atmosphere, the more widespread the electromagnetic damage of the blast. A nuclear weapon detonated at an altitude of 250 miles over the central U.S. would cover the entire country and parts of Canada and Mexico with its primary EMP. An implication for operational planning is that a potential EMP threat must be anticipated in every locality during the first minutes and perhaps hours after a nuclear attack is initiated.


Communications danger

The main concern behind an EMP attack is that it could catastrophically impact the nation’s electrical system, a system integral to the functioning of all interdependent infrastructures in the U.S., including emergency communication systems. The EMP Commission references that mobile radio communications equipment can be expected to experience disruption and failure at EMP threat levels that are likely to be experienced. Moreover, emergency services are critically dependent on the commercial telephone network, on electric power and thus on fuel for backup generators.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221, Standard for the Installation, Maintenance and Use of Emergency Service Communications Systems, applies to public emergency services communications systems and facilities. This includes dispatching, telephone, public reporting and one- and two-way radio systems. Even though the standard does not directly identify the impacts of EMP, it does so indirectly by stating (in 4.6 Security) that the communications centers and other buildings that house essential operating equipment shall be protected against damage from terrorism. Research finds that civilian fire and EMS communications are not adequately protected from the effects of EMP.

Aware of the catastrophic potential of EMP, the U.S military has developed standards for the design, engineering, fabrication, installation and testing of mission-critical equipment against high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). Whereas military standards MIL-STD-188-125-1 and MIL-STD-188-125-2 reference hardening and shielding of mission-critical equipment, NFPA 1221 uses terminology such as transient voltage surge suppression (TVSS), grounding systems, lightning and circuit protection. The military standards address concepts and terminology, such as hardness and shielding, which are infrequently if ever used in the fire service. A report titled “EMP Mitigation-Protecting Land Mobile Vehicles from HEMP Threat Environment” (Protection Technology Group) addresses the challenges of protecting vehicles from EMP. It acknowledges that modern civilian and military vehicles equipped with transistor-driven radio, power and control electronics are highly vulnerable to electromagnetic damage.


Vulnerability to EMP

The EMP Commission acknowledges that modern technology has led to a tremendous increase in electronics that are vulnerable to EMP, recommending a strategic plan to sponsor the development of vehicle-robustness specifications and testing of EMP and that these specifications should be implemented by augmenting existing specifications for gaining immunity to transient electromagnetic interference (EMI). One example of augmenting existing EMI specifications is NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, which does not reference EMP, but cites (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI). Research about fire apparatus manufacturers found that civilian emergency vehicles are designed to NFPA 1901, whereas at least one manufacturer designs its military vehicles to military EMP standards. Even though no known civilian fire department has requested apparatus designed to military EMP standards, manufacturers surveyed stated they could accommodate this request at an additional cost.

Researching the level of EMP emergency preparedness taking place at the federal level reveals that the threat is not being adequately addressed. Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 8 was established to strengthen the security and resilience of the U.S. against the greatest threats to the nation’s security – terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics and catastrophic natural disasters. The goals of this directive are to establish a national approach to homeland security preparedness across all levels of government, including private-sector and non-government organizations; to establish guidance for specific planning and training to meet this preparedness goal; and to establish national planning frameworks and preparedness guidelines. The National Preparedness Guidelines of 2007 were established by the Secretary of Homeland Security as directed by HSPD 8 to develop a national domestic “all-hazards” preparedness goal. Emergency preparedness documents commonly use the term “all hazards” to group all natural and man-made disasters together. There are four critical elements to this document: National Preparedness Vision, National Planning Scenarios, Universal Task List (UTL) and Target Capabilities List (TCL). The planning scenarios were developed by the Homeland Security Council, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal, state, local and tribal agencies. The planning scenarios emphasize preparing for catastrophic threats with the greatest risk of mass casualties and widespread property loss and social disruption.



The fire service faces significant new threats and considerable additional responsibilities, of which EMP is only one, and must monitor and adapt to these changes. Today’s fire service manages firefighting operations, fire prevention, EMS, hazardous materials responses, public health emergencies and, after 9/11, domestic and international terrorism.

The fire service must establish robust communications and emergency vehicle specifications to include EMP protection in the design, engineering, fabrication, installation and testing of this equipment. The fire service has always reflected the society or community it protects. Today’s fire service must acknowledge that its single-mission role has changed into an “all-hazards” service and incorporate this cultural change into planning and training programs. n