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Public Safety And The EMP Threat

Author: Kevin G. Coleman

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-02-12
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For years many have talked about the threat of an electromagnetic pulse, whether natural occurring or as a result of a nuclear weapon, but recent event have increased concerns about that threat.   So just what is an EMP?  EMP is the acronym for electromagnetic pulse.  An EMP is a burst of energy that travels through the air that is produced by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere or possibly non-nuclear -manmade means that may result in widespread damage to all unshielded semiconductor/ electronics, power lines, telecommunications, and computer equipment.  While much attention has been given to solar storms that are occurring, a major breakthrough in EMP research took place that is even more concerning.  The level of threat posed by an EMP event has been heavily debated and driven by unconfirmed reports that an EMP can be generated by conventional means!  That breakthrough has been confirmed and a non-nuclear EMP weapon is reality.   Just watch this video from Boeing Corporation (about 20 seconds in).

The awareness and concern about the impact of an EMP, regardless of source, on the United States has expanded far beyond a small population of nuclear weapons’ scientists and engineers. This expanded awareness has resulted in advanced studies of shielding which is the only defensive measure that would significantly lessen the impacts of EMP events.  In fact, there is a congressionally mandated EMP Threat Commission that has actually produced some of the best studies that seem to confirm a real threat scenario of a ballistic-missile-delivered high-altitude electromagnetic pulse attack could occur with what they deemed “catastrophic” effects on the United States.  That was supported by expert testimony by Brandon Wales, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center.  In his testimony he admitted that DHS remains unprepared for the possibility of an EMP event or attack.  He went on to say that the nation’s power grid is more vulnerable now than it was a few years ago (that is due to the modernization and automations of the grids controls).  Now add to that information the Washington Times report last year stating that China is actually building electromagnetic pulse weapons for use against the U.S. naval fleet, specifically aircraft carriers.  There are some researchers and military planners that ponder if China would stop there or go after the critical infrastructure on the U.S. mainland (see article in the Washington Times.)

One thing that is not being debated is the potential impact of an EMP event or attack.  For sure it will be extensive and far reaching, resulting in a national security concern.  In August, 2012 Congressman Roscoe Bartlett proposed a Bill (House Resolution 762) that would encourage “local preparedness.”  Announcing this resolution, Congressman Bartlett was joined at the news conference by experts on civil defense preparations and had statements of support from former CIA Director Jim Woolsey and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane - two people who you would think know about national security threats.   Hearings continue on this national security threat and one of the latest took place September of 2012 by the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cyber security, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies, chaired by Republican Dan Lungren (see posting at

The broad impact of an EMP attack or event is not really understood by many.  An online search found there are only a few training programs available on the topic.   Even though there are pod-casts and books on the likelihood of an EMP event or attack, little is available about the implications of such an occurrence.   Knowledge and planning for such an event is limited inside the emergency services community and even lesser so beyond.  I talked to Brian Martin of Spy-Ops that provides continuing education briefs to all those involved with homeland security including emergency responders and he told me that they are currently seeing an increase in their TEDS (transient electromagnetic devices) training program that covers EMP and attributes that to the attention the threat has been given by Capitol Hill. 

The impact of an EMP event could be significant.  Many people do not realize that the average passenger vehicle has nearly 100 electronic components (chips) used for engine control and breaking systems.  That figure does not include the radio/stereo or GPS systems.  What about fire apparatus?  One manufacturer that did not want to be quoted said that the average fire engine has several hundred electronic chips, transistors or other electronic components, and that is not including the intercom/radio/stereo or GPS systems.

Let’s expand our thinking about the impact of an EMP event on emergency services. Not only would we have to operate for an extended period of time without electricity, all of the electronic systems we routinely use (sirens, radios, digital pump meters, computer-aided-dispatch systems, even fire department PASS alarms) that are all un-shielded are susceptible to the effects of EMP.

NOTE:  It should be noted that our computer-aided-dispatch systems and computers in general are susceptible to other forms of cyber attacks and those types of attacks are much more likely.

The threat posed by EMP is real and the potential impact could be huge regardless of the source of the pulse.  The biggest unknown is if there is the ability to generate a significant EMP by conventional means (non-nuclear and not by a solar event).  That is a highly disputed topic even within the military intelligence and research communities.  If that is a possibility, could terrorist groups or rogue nation states trigger an EMP as a means of attacking the United States – the answer is yes!  Given the country’s reliance on computers and electronics in general, the disruption to our critical infrastructure would be extensive and the resulting economic impact substantial.  Given the cost of shielding and the time that it would take to protect the country’s entire critical infrastructure, there is not much we can do but be aware of the threat.


Kevin G. Coleman is a seasoned security professional and instructor with a comprehensive background in emergency response. He was chief of an ISO class 4 volunteer fire department and is a former International Society of Fire Service Instructors George D. Post - Fire Instructor of the Year. He has 18 years of success in the development and implementation of cutting-edge technology and training strategies and continues to work with innovative leaders in business, government, and the military on strategic issues of critical importance such as cyber threats.


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