The last major blackout in the US was the Northeastern grid failure of 2003 which affected 50 million residents throughout New England and southern Ontario. Fortunately, the utility company located and corrected the problem. Service was restored in just two hours for most, some after four days.

To anticipate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) event, disaster planners recognize that the resulting outage would differ in two significant ways from a typical grid failure. If an enormous burst of electromagnetic radiation swept through the region, it would induce high-voltage current in all circuitry and cables —likely much more than their designed capacities. This would result in:

  • Widespread grid damage — equipment would not burn out at one location, but likely at all distribution stations throughout the region. This suggests that the timeline of outage would be significantly longer than four days; it may take weeks or months to install replacements throughout the network.
  • Permanently deactivated electronic circuits — the induced electricity would likewise render conventional electronic devices inoperable. This would disable communications, motor vehicles, and medical equipment, increasing the difficulty to respond to the situation.

Local police forces and hospitals are the first responders to a protracted power outage, tasked with handling emergencies in a paralyzed city. At the same time, they would be greatly constrained by damage to their own infrastructure.

This post outlines the short-term and long-term challenges police and medical organizations would face and the strategies they might adopt to mitigate EMP impact.

The First Hours After EMP

In the immediate aftermath of an EMP/HEMP event, police dispatch and 911 would be silenced. Communications and computer infrastructure overloaded by the pulse would be rendered ineffective.

Transportation may be stalled as well, including gas-powered police vehicles that rely on electronics in their programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Even if a specialized fleet was equipped with surge protection and could start, the rest of the city streets would be crowded with thousands of inoperable civilian vehicles, obstructing routes, slowing rescue efforts, and making mass evacuation impossible.

An unprepared local law enforcement agency might not only find itself immobilized but also without means of coordination if the EMP eliminates mobile phone, internet, or two-way radio functionality. Additionally, the loss of access to city databases and other digital systems could impede real-time information sharing, further hindering an agency’s situational awareness.

At the same time, hospitals, too, would confront immense challenges to sustain patient care. Ambulances and emergency vehicles likewise may have their essential electronic components permanently damaged. Medical equipment, including life-support devices, depend on electricity to function. A sudden power outage could disrupt patient care and increase mortality rates, particularly among those in critical condition. Refrigeration for storing medications and vaccines would be compromised.

Sustaining Operations in the Long Term

As hours turn into days and weeks without restoration of grid power, the challenges for police forces and hospitals multiply and intensify.

For police forces, maintaining law and order becomes increasingly difficult. The absence of electricity-driven surveillance systems and communication networks would hinder the ability to monitor and respond to incidents. The morale of officers who face a strain on resources, a lack of organizational support, and rising civil unrest may deteriorate during a prolonged crisis.

Many hospitals and clinics have backup generators as a contingency. In a protracted power outage, however, this sets up a ticking clock for the refueling, since stock may last only four days. Those with alternative renewable energy solutions may still be impacted. Many solar power systems, for instance, include inverters, charge controllers, and monitors, all of which contain electronics vulnerable to EMP effects.

Hospital staff would need to ration available power and prioritize patients based on condition and difficult decisions regarding life-saving treatments would become inevitable.

Timeline of An Expanding Disaster

Unlike the 2003 blackout, where the population experience a mild inconvenience, a prolonged absence of electricity would threaten the lives of residents in multiple ways as the crisis progresses.

As the condition of households deteriorate, the pressures on emergency services mount. People who become desperate after food and water supplies run out may resort to looting, theft, or violence.

Loss of water and sewer service within days would overwhelm hospitals with cases of dehydration and diseases spread through backed up standing water, sewage, and accumulated solid waste. Each day without power and water utilities would deepen the humanitarian crisis:

Day 1 — loss of food stock due to lack of refrigeration

Day 2 — failure of water and sewage service

Day 3 — deaths from lack of water begin

Day 4 — hospitals may run out of necessary water and backup power and cease to function

Day 5 — deaths from malnutrition begin

Day 10 — illness and deaths from waterborne diseases begin

Day 21 — estimated 30% mortality

Mitigation Strategies

In order to navigate the complex challenges posed by long-term power outages after an EMP/HEMP event, both police forces and hospitals must devise comprehensive mitigation strategies to preserve infrastructure and formulate alternative modes of operation on reduced resources.

Protecting Infrastructure

Cities and utility companies are hardening their electrical infrastructure. Filters that can absorb higher voltage surges can be installed at grid substations, protecting heavy equipment. These efforts may result in saving the most critical parts of the grid from damage. Police and hospitals can work with these efforts to ensure that partial grid capacity is distributed to emergency service locations.

Smaller HEMP filters are designed to protect convention electronic equipment, so police stations and hospitals can shield their most important computer, communication, and support systems housed inside their facilities. Similar modifications can preserve renewable energy installations that supply backup power.

Communication and Coordination

Police forces can invest in decentralized communication systems that rely on resilient technologies like mesh networks, enabling officers to communicate even when central infrastructure is compromised. Hospitals could establish communication protocols that prioritize patient care information and critical updates, allowing medical staff to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.

Police forces can enhance training programs to equip officers with the skills to manage situations in the absence of digital tools. Hospitals should establish emergency preparedness plans that account for long-term power disruptions, training medical personnel to effectively use manual equipment and prioritize patient care.

Collaboration between police forces, hospitals, and other critical services is essential. Sharing resources, knowledge, and best practices can foster a cohesive response to EMP events.

Consult with an Expert

In the aftermath of a HEMP event leading to long-term power outages, police forces and hospitals will confront exceptional challenges. However, strategic planning, investment in resilient technologies, and collaboration with various stakeholders can help these organizations navigate the crisis, sustain public health and safety, and avoid the worst consequences.

Consult with an expert on infrastructure engineering and EMP protection at TSS USA Manufacturing.