Space Weather - A Historic Shift in Emergency Preparedness

For the first time since the demise of the civil defense program of the Cold War, the federal government has made one of the most significant modifications to its emergency preparedness message. A three-day emergency kit is no longer sufficient to prepare for emerging threats, whether coming from Earth or from space.

Instead of implying that U.S. communities can always count on being rescued from any disaster in four days – requiring three days of food and water to stay comfortable – the implication now is that local communities might not always receive assistance for a much longer period of time. The source of this change is the new Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan, which were released on 29 October 2015 and explained again at an April 2016 Space Weather Workshop.

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center hosted its annual Space Weather Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, the week of 27 April 2016. This year was special because of the intimate involvement of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which provided keynote addresses and the 2015 promulgation of the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan.

Of special interest to the emergency management community is the second of six goals of the strategy that contain the following four elements:

  1. Complete an all-hazards power outage response and recovery plan: for extreme space weather events and the long-term loss of electric power and cascading effects on other critical infrastructure sectors.

  2. Other low-frequency, high-impact events are also capable of causing long-term power outages on a regional or national scale.

  3. The plan must include the Whole Community and enable the prioritization of core capabilities.

  4. Develop and conduct exercises to improve and test Federal, State, regional, local and industry-related space weather response and recovery plans: Exercising plans and capturing lessons learned enables ongoing improvement in event response and recovery capabilities.”

Historic Shift in Emergency Preparedness Long-term national outages of power and other infrastructures that depend on them – including water, sewer, communications, and healthcare institutions – could mean that the entire country might undergo a catastrophe and might not be able to quickly mobilize resources to help many communities. So, unlike the cases of Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, where help could come within a week or so, help might not arrive in 40 days, or even 400 days.

As awful as that sounds, there might actually be good news for the preparedness community. In the past, having a three-day supply of food and water to some may have seemed a waste of time since they would be rescued in four days anyway. Placing the day-to-day normal disruptions in the context of something much larger and very likely to occur during their lifetimes may motivate them to reconsider this strategy and take greater responsibility to be resilient.

An extreme space weather event – like, the 1859 Carrington event – could create a continental-wide disaster according to the National Strategy, and has a 6 to 12 percent likelihood of occurring every decade. That is a significant likelihood for such a calamitous occurrence. Including high-impact threats in overall disaster planning scenarios provides a sense of importance and immediacy that should compel the whole community to get involved, rather than simply hoping for someone to rescue them.

Preparedness Rhetoric – Beware of Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome Merely discussing high-impact threats can also have a paralyzing effect if not approached properly. When someone is faced with an overwhelming scenario from any high-impact threat, it may seem easier to give up and not even think about the problem let alone begin to plan or take action to mitigate it. The response that causes a shutdown could result from emotional, financial, legal, or political reasons. A new phrase “pre-traumatic stress disorder” could be used to describe the bias many people have toward bad news. For this reason, it is important to provide a sense of hope while conveying a high-impact threat message. It is best to do that within the first minute of conveying the message to avoid having the listener minimize or block the entire conversation.

It helps to mention this problem upfront when discussing plans and conducting workshops or tabletop exercises. It also helps to warn the participants that a given planning exercise might be intended to push the plan to a failure point. In this way, the plan – rather than the participants – fails, which can be an important step in the process for improving plans.

Although the Space Weather Strategy focuses on space weather, it mentions that there are other high-impact threats that can cause similar disasters – for example, manmade electromagnetic threats, cyberattacks, or coordinated physical attacks. When presented together for consideration as an all-hazards collection, the likelihood of any one event in the collection occurring is significantly higher. In the case of natural disasters, preparation can improve the odds of passing through the disaster with less loss. However, in the case of manmade threats, being at least partially prepared could lessen the likelihood of experiencing the disaster in the first place, since bad actors will be tempted to go after easier targets. Conversely, not taking basic precautions can actually increase the odds of a problem. Having unprotected critical infrastructure is like leaving a sign in front of a house asking people not to come in and take the pile of cash from the table, and then leaving the door open.

Military Warning About Manmade Electromagnetic Threats In October 2015, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) made a similar request for help in its Small Business Innovation Research Program request for proposal (RFP). In the RFP, DTRA declared that electromagnetic pulse from small nuclear devices detonated in the upper atmosphere or attacks by high-powered microwave devices driven in panel vans could render civilian power grids inoperable where restoration may take weeks, months, or “may not be possible.”

This Department of Defense (DOD) RFP further states that, “Such methods should aide in the development of islanding at DOD sites to ensure survivability to geographically large [electromagnetic] threats. These methods may also be applied to the commercial sector and other areas of the government: hospitals, civilian infrastructure, businesses, etc.” The declaration of DOD is clear: military bases and the civilian institutions that they depend on are overwhelmingly vulnerable to their own near complete reliance on unprepared civilian power grids. The DOD has already started the process of changing by developing distributed energy systems under their own control. However, due to minimal funding, these systems rarely have power storage such as batteries to provide resilience in case of a grid collapse and are even less likely to have EMP protection. This RFP signals a change in this overdependence on extremely vulnerable systems.

This RFP also goes beyond operational and disaster recovery procedures that try to indefinitely work around the problem of no power. Instead, it calls for practical EMP-protected microgrids as a solution to the problem. As a result, this RFP provides hope that individual institutions and communities can in fact protect themselves as part of a prepared whole community approach. However, it also reinforces the message that local communities must become more resilient and not merely wait to be rescued.

High-Impact Threat Assessment & Planning Support In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published Regional Resiliency Assessment Program findings that show similar vulnerabilities of the entire cyber industry (internet, telecommunications facilities, and data centers) to power grid vulnerabilities such as EMP. Two of its key findings include:

  • “Data center and content providers may not have a pathway to contribute to resilience efforts and/or communicate criticality during an emergency” – conducting a workshop for the data center community would facilitate communication needs and access to critical resources.

  • “Data centers and network providers should consider electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and radio frequency (RF) generator effects in developing resilience and protective measures plans” – conducting additional workshops would facilitate information sharing for EMP/RF threats, protection, and risk management.

 In December 2015, the InfraGard National EMP Special Interest Group (SIG) presented copies of its Triple Threat Power Grid Exercise program to leadership of DHS, FEMA, and the National Guard. This program takes an all-hazards approach to high-impact disasters by looking at cyber, space weather, and manmade EMP threats that could result in a 1-, 3-, or 12-month national power outage. Since then, emergency management leaders at the local, state, and federal levels have begun to conduct these high-impact threat workshops nationwide.

InfraGard EMP SIG leaders in the private sector are working with the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection and National Guard leaders to assist states and local governments in hosting workshops and tabletop exercises to test their disaster and recovery plans in light of these high-impact threats. Local protective security advisors of DHS, EMP SIG, or other InfraGard leaders can be contacted to obtain copies of the program including read-ahead material, a PowerPoint presentation, and customized versions of the facilitator’s guide.

Later in 2016, the EMP SIG is expecting to release a “cookbook” of planning assistance that can help communities improve their plans. DomPrep readers are welcome to participate in these discussions and tabletop exercises by checking the DomPrep Calendar for events such as the tabletop exercise of the Society for Disaster Medicine in Maryland in late July, the InfraGard National Congress in Orlando, Florida, the week of September 12, the INCOSE/NASA/InfraGard Energy Tech Conference tabletop exercise in Cleveland on November 2, and the EMP SIG sessions of the Dupont Summit on December 1-2.

Charles (Chuck) Manto

Charles (Chuck) Manto is chief executive officer of Instant Access Networks LLC (IAN), a consulting and research and development firm that produces independently tested solutions for EMP-protected microgrids and equipment shelters for telecommunications networks and data centers. His company holds the data rights package for its SBIR program for EMP-protected microgrid systems. He received seven patents in telecommunications, computer mass storage, EMP protection and a smart microgrid controller, the core of IAN's “Resilient Adaptive Modular-Microgrid System” (RAMS(TM)). He is a senior member of the IEEE and is chairman-emeritus of InfraGard National’s National Disaster Resilience Council. He can be reached at



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