Gale Nordling, president and CEO of Emprimus, recently testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, Science and Technology about how electromagnetic devices can be used against public infrastructure, specifically the electric grid. Such devices can disable systems controlled by computers and significantly disrupt emergency-response operations from fire protection to homeland security, Nordling said.

“When terrorists intentionally use electromagnetic interference they are able to interfere with security systems, communication systems and operation systems,” Nordling said in an interview with Urgent Communications.

Every year, U.S. infrastructure becomes increasingly dependent on integrated, circuit-based electronic control systems, computers and electronically stored data. As a result, Nordling said a growing use of non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse/intentional electromagnetic interference (EMP/IEMI), including radio-frequency weapons, poses a danger to the national electric grid, manufacturing control and distribution systems, corporate data and emergency-response operations. In addition, communication between first responders would be negligible because the cell and repeater towers would go down because they rely on the energy from the grid.

“It would depend on the kind of facility that would be hooked to the power grid that would determine the degree of harm that would occur, such as if it was a hospital or a 911 communication call center,” he said.

EMP/IEMI weapons come in several forms. Devices range from a suitcase device to a device that would fit in a pick-up truck. Nordling said the person-portable or vehicle-borne weapons can damage electronic equipment and the associated data, rendering systems useless and potentially unrecoverable. Vulnerable support systems at risk range from security systems and communication links to fire protection systems.

“It’s a serious threat. We could certainly envision for example a coordinated attack or multiple devices on trucks are used and you can drive down the street or by the facility and trigger the device,” he said. “If the electric grid was attacked and a large sector of the country was affected, medicines and food would go bad, phone and radio communication would be non-existent, water-treatment facilities would go down, and critical data and infrastructure could be lost.”

Nordling said critical infrastructure needs to be protected.

“Metal shielding needs to be added around the controls and filters on the communication lines because all the lines going in and out of the controls, electromagnetic waves attach to those lines and then go right into the computer and computer chips and damages them,” he said.

Congress currently is contemplating broadening planned amendments the Federal Power Act to include electromagnetic attacks and other cyber threats. This legislation will provide additional authority to adequately protect the critical electric infrastructure against IEMI attacks and other cyber attacks, as well as hardening the electric grid against severe geomagnetic storms, Nordling said.