Electromagnetic Pulse Triage & Recovery

by Charles (Chuck) L. Manto

Emergency medical technicians and paramedics triage patients for mass-casualty incidents. Hospital emergency rooms have triage nurses to determine the level of care needed. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) participants are taught how to quickly sort and tag victims so they can focus on the seriously injured and sustain them until help arrives. Conversation about high-impact disasters should convey hope. Without the hope of recovery and the management capacity implied in the word “triage,” the problem may seem overwhelming. One sign of hope is that an economic impact assessment on electromagnetic pulse (EMP) showed that protecting even 10 percent of the most critical infrastructure could avoid up to 60 percent of losses. Triage helpsentify that 10 percent.

Triage is especially helpful in the case of a high-altitude nuclear burst EMP or severe solar storm. Depending on who is in charge and where the impacted organization is located relative to the event, actions will range from relatively easy to nearly impossible. Knowing the difference makes it possible to begin developing and deploying plans now in order to manage and recover from such incidents in the future.

How EMP Works Large solar storms create ground-induced currents similar to the slow-rise time pulse of a large high-altitude nuclear EMP burst, known as E3. Currents can connect with conductors in the ground to damage equipment connected to ground wires, including large transformers that may take over a year to replace.

A high-altitude nuclear burst from even a small weapon could disrupt or damage electronics at nanosecond speeds within a specific region and, under the right circumstances, across the continental United States. Smaller electronic hand-held or vehicle-mounted electromagnetic interference (EMI) devices only act on equipment that is at fairly close range and require a number of people to cause interruption in a large area, but can pose serious threats like other coordinated physical attacks. Protecting equipment from high-altitude EMP also protects against smaller EMI weapons.

Manmade EMP creates both a radiated pulse through the air and a conducted pulse along cables. See the article by George Baker, professor emeritus at James Madison University, for more-detailed explanations and discussions of common misperceptions about EMP.

For any triage scenario, sometimes the most difficult tasks are ultimately “written off.” For example, although protecting large power utility generators and transformers is relatively inexpensive, a moderately difficult activity for utilities would be nearly impossible for an outside firm to impose on these utilities. At this time, only a few utilities have begun the process of protecting their most critical assets and earning certification by independent testing authorities to prove they meet objective standards of protection from either EMP or a hundred-year solar storm. The InfraGard National EMP Special Interest Group’s (SIG) conference proceedings of 2012 and 2013 include technical, economic, policy, and emergency management resources, which help corporate as well as local and state government officials to assess: (a) what can and is being done (or not done) at the federal and industry-wide levels; and (b) what, in this of threats, requires an all-of-nation response.

Benefits of EMP-Protected Microgrids & Local Networks From a triage perspective, scenarios involving a nationwide collapse of centralized infrastructures for 1-12 months or longer would highlight the need for companies and organizations to avoid total dependence on large centralized systems outside of their own control and plan. For this reason, the EMP SIG is creating a workshop and tabletop exercise package along with background technical and engineering information that it will make available to state and local government emergency management after the completion of its workshop and facilitated discussion on 4 December 2014.

As organizations face the prospective collapse of centralized infrastructure, they may become motivated to discover how to make and store enough power locally to continue to operate indefinitely without a centralized power grid and communications network. In fact, protected microgrids and local networks would make the centralized grids more resilient because those islands of sustainable power would minimize the domino effect of cascading failures inherent in a regional or nationwide incident.

Industries and communities that produce some of their own power would save or make money by avoiding peak load charges. Local communities that already produce their own power will find it easier to protect their assets than with larger systems. Fortunately, for those wanting to produce and store power for their own facility or campus, technologies are available and new technology in the near future will make it more cost competitive with centralized systems, especially given the resulting improved sustainable reliability. There are some companies including utilities that are offering systems integration services for microgrids. In time, they also could provide EMP-rated microgrids.

Local EMP Protection – The Easy Part of EMP Triage Fortunately, organizations can take some relatively easy and inexpensive steps on their own. For example, since EMP and intentional EMI are either radiated through the air or conducted through power or communication lines, one easy and nearly free action any organization can take to reduce the probability of EMP disrupting or damaging critical equipment would be to unplug equipment that is not being used. Emergency operations centers, which are often reserved for emergencies and not used much of the time, have multiple computer and communication stations connected to power and communication lines 24/7. If unused subsystems were to be unplugged when not in use, then the conducted pulses would not be as likely to couple with the systems through those conductors.

Circuit breakers or plug connections could be deployed in easy-to-see locations at eye level so facility managers can walk into rooms and see at a glance whether unused systems are plugged in. Requiring managers to walk around and crawl under desks to see if something is plugged in is not a sustainable maintenance method. Unplugged systems still would be vulnerable to EMI through the air, but unplugging them when not used would increase the chances of survival. In addition, less power used for standby capability would actually save money for organizations. The savings then could be used to purchase EMP-rated surge protectors or electronic filters for electric distribution systems so those particular lines would be able to pass through power while filtering excess EMI during operation. Filtered lines also deliver “cleaner” power to devices, minimizing the impacts of small day-to-day surges and fluctuations that reduce equipment health and lifespan.

Perhaps the simplest and least expensive measure to protect equipment from radiated EMI would be to place spare equipment into EMP-shielded containers or rooms. In this case, solid metal containers that are independently EMP rated are the most reliable solutions. Homemade solutions also may be effective, especially for those who are required to have fire-rated steel safes for files, equipment, or firearms. In these cases, there should be no holes into the safe, and doors should have metal gaskets around all of the edges so signals do not travel through the seams or edges of the closed door.

Similarly, steel or aluminum garbage cans for this use should have metal tape applied to the seams and metal gaskets of the same or compatible metal as the can around the inside of the lid. Aluminum tape or gaskets applied to an iron or steel surface, for example, would result in corrosive interactions between the different metals, which would degrade the shielding. In addition, the inside needs to be lined with a nonconducting insulation layer to protect equipment from the metal layer that will hold or pass a charge.

Somewhat More Difficult Local EMP Protection – Moderate EMP Triage Shielding operating equipment and rooms from airborne EMI is a little more complicated and expensive because these rooms have power, communications, and air circulation that make shielding more difficult but not impractical. Business arrangements prove that even cash-poor organizations among counties, hospitals, or universities can acquire equipment at no monetary cost by providing in-kind resources to business continuity parks that would provide protection to organizations as they create EMP and cyber-resilient local networks supported by local power generation and energy storage systems.

Some buildings constructed entirely of steel may have enough inherent shielding properties built in that could be modified to provide a small measure of EMP protection.  For example, some all-steel buildings may have enough shielding value in their material that could provide as much as 30 decibels (dB) of the 30-100 dB of protection required by military specifications if those buildings were to be modified as a consistent shield. Even a lower level of shielding such as this will improve the odds that equipment might survive a given EMP event. (Every 20 dB of protection reduces the amount of EMI passing through the shield by a factor of 10.) 

Meeting the Military Standard Tests The military standard 188.125 for EMP protection currently requires a minimum reduction of the pulse by a factor of 1000 or 80 dB – that is, the reduction deemed necessary to allow otherwise vulnerable equipment to operate without disruption while under an EMP attack. Even these levels of protection do not have to be cost-prohibitive, especially if built into infrastructure in the beginning of the planning process.

Operating equipment can be shielded from radiated pulses by placing equipment into cabinets or rooms that are shielded on all six sides by either welded (best) or bolted (next best) metal to ensure protection at a given level. These rooms and equipment also must be protected from conducted pulses since cables either act as antennae that promulgate the pulse into the room or provide direct pathways into the equipment they connect. All power and communication wires must be filtered from excess electromagnetic energy. Conductors of any sort must be placed into a shielded space with proper filtering and connections.

In addition, waveguides can protect air passageways by capturing the electromagnetic waves and connecting them back to ground connections (see Figure 1). EMP-rated doors and sally ports need to be tested to ensure that they do not compromise the rooms (see Figure 2).eally, management will support and determine that continued maintenance and testing will be performed on the most critical infrastructure deserving this level of protection.

It is critical that subsequent changes do not damage the shielding effectiveness. Business continuity, security, change management (i.e., a management process used to make systems, usually information technology and infrastructure, to ensure consistency with overall requirements), and maintenance systems should all be integrated to ensure the alignment of management objectives and day-to-day practice. More than once, multimillion dollar facilities have been compromised because someone decided to casually drill a hole through a shielded room to place antennas through the shield for a better communications signal. Experienced contractors could ensure that the work is tested against objective standards and the desired EMP protection is maintained over time.

Simplifying a Civilian Critical Infrastructure EMP Rating System Civilian critical infrastructure managers would be better served by a simple and understandable EMP rating system such as the one used by the Uptime Institute for data centers, which ranks them from low (Level 1) to high (Level 4) based on their resilience. One industry practice proposed by Instant Access Networks takes a similar approach by providing objective standards against which EMP-protected facilities and equipment could be measured. In this approach, Level 3 would be a way to meet all harmonized military standards for EMP and Tempest (signal emitting protection) at a 100-dB level. For those who want a greater level of protection, Level 4 provides 140 dB of protection, while Level 1 provides 30 dB and Level 2 provides 60 dB.

This is especially useful in a systems approach to civilian critical infrastructure that can be composed of rooms, systems, facilities, campuses, and networks spanning regions or continents. Not all components or systems will require the same amount of protection and not every system is equally valuable. An overall design approach to business continuity will require different levels of protection depending on the importance of the system element being protected and its vulnerability. Instant Access Networks LLC devised the following way to show ranges of protection that may be relevant to various elements – power, data, and communications – in a 4-level, system-wide protection method where Level 3 meets or exceeds various military specifications for EMP and Tempest requirements.

Large data center and control rooms have been constructed to meet EMP standards for the military for decades. In the past year, a U.S.-based utility created an EMP-protected control room in Texas and an insurance company built an EMP-protected data center in Pennsylvania. Mass producible EMP-protected equipment such as cabinets, transportable 8 x 20 foot cargo containers, mobile command centers, and microgrids could be deployed across networks and control facilities so racks of computer or communications equipment and their power systems could be protected within them.

Getting Help EMI threats can be complicated to understand and even tougher to mitigate. However, by following these simple triage steps, organizations can acquire EMP protection that can also protect life-sustaining systems from the effects of smaller EMI weapons and larger solar storms. In order to confidently take steps to protect critical infrastructure, here are three categories of available resources:

  • Written resources: In addition to the conference proceedings of the InfraGard National EMP SIG, there are a number of information sources. First, there are general studies such as the work of the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission and various public domain military standards and manuals. Second, there are organizations such as the IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Societ