Estonia to adopt warning SMS system and weighs shelters

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Dmitri Kotjuh / Järva Teataja

The state should create an SMS warnings system, consider a network of sirens, and build up the capacity to evacuate masses of people, a newly completed population protection concept details.

The government approved an analysis carried out by a Government Office task force over two years yesterday which concludes that the population’s preparedness for crises is poor.

The working group, headed by Southern Rescue Center chief Margo Klaos, found that the population has not been properly prepared for crises and people’s ability to hold out is poor. Surveys suggest people think about emergencies seldom or not at all. Notification of the public, evacuation, and correct civilian conduct during conflicts with an enemy are among more important things to address. Urbanization means there are fewer people with the possibility of temporarily seeking shelter in the countryside.

Instructions for many

“Estonia has been preparing for more likely emergencies. We need to start paying more attention to threats the likelihood of which has not been high or has grown in recent years,” Klaos told Postimees.

“For example, it is important to be better prepared for outages of essential services, like power and data communication. The latter can be caused by extraordinary weather conditions, technical issues, cyberattacks, and armed conflicts,” he said.

What to do in case of a chemical disaster, epidemic, forest fire, or war? It turns out the needs of the population might be quite similar in all these cases.

The task force found that Estonia lacks a technical solution with which to notify people of dangers immediately and based on their location. Hopes have instead been placed on channels of mass communication and social media.

The task force sees a nationwide SMS-based warning system that would make it possible to notify an entire area and give people initial instructions as one of the first steps to be taken. Similar systems are operational in the Netherlands, Lithuania, Hungary, Iceland, and Belgium. Creating the system would cost an estimated €1.5 million and operating it another €1.2 million.

The state should also consider installation of siren systems in densely populated areas that are more likely to experience emergency situations. Switzerland has one of the most complete such systems and uses nearly 7,500 sirens that cover areas home to more than 99 percent of the population. Norway concluded in 2016 that its sirens are the surest way to warn the population and need to be maintained.

Because Estonia lacks a crisis information channel, the task force believes a crisis hotline is in order. It could tell loved ones to which hospital a person has been taken. A crisis hotline would cost around €600,000 over the next five years.

Things are also far from satisfactory concerning people’s stockpiles. Data from 2017 suggests families were best equipped with first aid necessities. A little under two-thirds of people claim to

have sufficient food stockpiles for a week, while only 37 percent have access to a well or other source of drinking water.

The Government Office workgroup recommends measures to support people having at least a week’s stockpile of provisions and aids. Preparedness for crisis situations should be paid more attention in basic and high school curricula to raise awareness in society.

Evacuation capacity was found to be one of the weakest points. While a peacetime evacuation procedure and responsible persons have been designated, the task force believes there is no actual readiness for a mass evacuation. Wartime evacuation procedure and provision of shelters has not been allocated sufficient resources, and organizers have not been designated or prepared.

Evacuation would be the number one concern in case of a military conflict as Estonia does not have enough shelters. The Police and Border Guard Board has started working on an extensive evacuation concept for emergencies that should be completed in 2018. The plan will aim for the capacity to offer shelter to at least 2 percent of local government residents.

Development of evacuation capacity is a long and expensive process the true nature and price of which need to be determined in a separate activity plan to be completed by 2019.

Protection of residents problematic

The same problem concerns refuge. The latter protects people from chemical or radioactive fallout and explosions. While taking refuge indoors is enough in most emergency situations, Estonia lacks infrastructure for wartime refuge.

The government decided in 1993 to follow the example of most European countries and not develop shelters. At the time, Estonia still had 280 shelters and places of refuge for 72,910 people. The state currently has no overview of the condition of these facilities.

One way to improve public protection is to create common places of refuge in cities. Whether such a plan would pay off should become clear as a result of a separate analysis to be presented to the government’s security committee by the end of the year. The state should also introduce standards and technical specifications for shelters people could build themselves or use to reinforce existing buildings.

People first count on the rescue board, police, and medical assistance in emergencies. While the former two have a voluntary support network that could alleviate spikes in demand at least to some extent, emergency response would quickly be overwhelmed even in case of a moderate crisis. The task force believes a solution could lie in creating a “Crisis time medical assistance organization concept 2017-2026” and a system of medical volunteers.

A lot of work needs to be done to solve the question of how to notify people in the conditions of war. A solution needs to be found by the government’s strategic communication team that stands to be complemented this year.

Everything takes time

Margo Klaos said that now that the concept is finished, the next step is to secure funding to put the measures into practice. Whether that’s possible will become clear in the state budget strategy in April.

“Provided resources are found, it will be possible to execute or launch all more important activities inside the next three-four years,” Klaos estimated.

That does not mean Estonia could reach an exemplary level of crisis-readiness in the same time. It takes years to promote correct behavior, and the state plans to start with schools, public servants, and community leaders.