A test conducted early this year on White Sands Missile Range is providing valuable data on how first responders’ equipment may react in the event of a major attack.
The test, a project that brings together the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Nuclear Technologies Department, and WSMR’s Survivability Vulnerability Assessment Directorate, is testing the effect of an electromagnetic pulse on commercially available trunked radio systems.
Trunked radios are special computer controlled radios that can allow large numbers of people, even in different talking groups, to communicate while using a very small number of frequencies. This allows groups like firefighters, police, and medical responders to communicate with each other and within their own talking groups as if they each had their own frequency, with minimal risk of disruption, and with simplified frequency management requirements.
The concern of DHS is that a large, powerful, electromagnetic pulse, like that generated by a nuclear weapon, would be able to damage these radios and prevent first responders from communicating.
EMPs can damage electronics by causing sudden power surges to go through the device. While most electronic devices are designed to handle some power surges, this protection is usually around the devices components that directly deal with the device’s power supply. An EMP on the other hand can create surges in other parts of a device that are not protected, and the resulting overload can damage or destroy delicate components and disable the device. “What’s different with an electromagnetic pulse is that it comes in and couples directly to wires that you are not expecting to get large currents on, and that’s where these systems can show vulnerabilities,” said Dr. Jonathan Morrow-Jones, technical director for Applied Research Associates’ nuclear environments and system assessments directorate.
Since communication is critical to emergency response, especially in a large scale event like a nuclear detonation, knowing how vulnerable their radios are is vitally important to emergency response planning. ” Should there be a WMD (event)… the first people into the area are first responders from numerous government agencies, Federal all the way down to local, and they rely on electronics, whether it’s medical equipment, radios for police, fire, that need to operate in those harsh environments that one might find as a first responder. “This test is to make sure critical electronics first responders operate in emergencies will function correctly,” said Michael Rooney, branch chief for nuclear survivability at DTRA.
To conduct such a specialized test DTRA came to WMSR’s electromagnetic test range. The range is equipped with special machines that can generate an EMP similar to the kind a nuclear blast generates, but in a more controlled fashion, as well as systems to monitor and collect data on the systems being tested. WSMR’s electromagnetic test range was a prime choice for the test for many different reasons. “Our interaction with the Folks at White Sands Missile Range has been superb, their equipment is good and the technicians are very well trained,” Rooney said.
In addition to the clear weather that allowed the test to be conducted in relative comfort, WSMR’s SVAD personnel provided quality test systems and data collection support, and the large scale of the facility allowed the entire set of radios to be tested together as a network rather than individually. “This is one of the great facilities that exist out here and makes it very convenient to set up a fairly large and distributed system as we have here. Normally smaller type EMP testing can be done on a box level, with smaller kinds of things in a lab setting, but when you have an extended system like this you need to have a much larger test facility,” Morrow-Jones Said.
Bringing along representatives from Motorola, who manufacture many of the trunked radios systems used by first responders, DTRA, with the support of WSMR personnel form SVAD, subjected various radio models to EMPs. Systems ranging from large radios and antenna systems used by dispatchers, down to small hand held units used by individual first responders on the ground were tested, and test officials collected data on each system’s performance.
In addition to typical data collection for analysis, the test also gave the test officials and company representatives the opportunity to evaluate the systems as the test progressed, to determine what options a first responder in the field might have, or what other simple solutions might be able to improve the system. “After each shot we go back in, take a look and make sure that the system is still functionally operational. If we see there is a problem, we try and do troubleshooting to see what has caused that problem and ultimately get the system restored,” Morrow-Jones said.
While the data is still being analyzed, test officials are confident the program will allow them to develop solutions to better protect these radio systems, or develop improved models with more resiliency.