Imagine the authorities warning of a disaster and no one notices. That's pretty much how it went at the first nationwide warning day three years ago. Sirens remained silent in many places, warning notifications reached citizens too late or not at all. Christoph Unger, then head of the Federal Office for Civil Protection, had to vacate his post after the disaster. The second attempt followed last year. For the first time, people were also warned via direct messages on their smartphones.
Now the next warning day is coming up. Things should be going better on September 14th than they were three years ago. What you need to know in advance can be read here:
The nationwide warning day takes place every year on the second Thursday in September and is carried out by the federal, state and local governments. The authorities are checking the German warning systems and also testing how people can best be alerted in the event of a disaster.
On September 14th, the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) triggered the test alarm at 11 a.m. This will be heard over 38,000 sirens, but will also be visible via warning apps, radio and television stations and almost 6,600 digital display boards. The all-clear comes at 11:45 a.m.
In order to reach as many people in Germany as possible in the middle of everyday life, the test alarm takes place during the week.
Compared to other countries, Germany relies on a mix of systems for disaster alarms. Five types of warnings are listed in the catalog of the Modular Warning System (MoWas) from the federal and state governments:
The BBK also advises citizens to find out about the test alarm from the fire department, town hall or community center in their respective municipality. “It is a good idea to find out in advance how your local authority plans to test warning devices in order to prepare for it and, ideally, to inform relatives and other close people about it,” says the BBK website. Information is also available to German citizens in different languages.
There are several reasons for this. After the Cold War, sirens were dismantled or no longer maintained in many places in Germany. It is also unclear how many sirens there are in Germany. Over 38,000 of these alarm systems are registered with the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Relief. They must be triggered by the municipal control centers. That's why the warning signal doesn't sound everywhere at the same time. It will be months before the sirens are controlled centrally, BBK President Ralph Tiesler told the German Press Agency. And a complete, current picture of all functioning sirens in the Federal Republic will only be available next year. "The nationwide siren register should be available over the next year as a platform with up-to-date data."
In addition, municipalities can voluntarily participate in the test alarm - but they do not have to. So the sirens don't have to be screaming everywhere on September 14th.
This technology was developed after the devastating flood in the Ahr Valley and tested for the first time last December. Every cell phone user who is in a certain area with their cell phone switched on will receive a text message announced by a sound - provided the device is not too old and the necessary updates have been carried out. The messages are limited to 500 characters and contain the warning and recommendations for action.
No one needs to register separately for Cell Broadcast. The authorities can send the warning message via cell broadcast to all reachable cell phones at the same time. On Warning Day last year, Cell Broadcast's coverage rate was around 53 percent, as the BBK reported, citing its own survey.
Apart from the test alarm, nationwide warnings are an absolute exception. Warnings are usually given locally or regionally, for example about floods or forest fires.
The alarm system in Germany has been expanded, but is still patchy. Although there are more sirens today than there were a few years ago, how many there were five or ten years ago is unclear because the nationwide overview is only now being created and was previously a matter for the states. Some places in Germany still have to cope today without alarm bells. However, there are funding programs to change that.
The bunkers are also a big issue at the BKK. There are still 579 protective bunkers in Germany. However, they are no longer available for civil protection. "This is a complex issue, because since it was decided in 2007 not to operate any more public bunkers, we are still at the very beginning," said BBK President Tiesler to the DPA.
Overall, he sees Germany as well equipped when it comes to personal preparedness for crises and disasters. "Our campaigns and events such as the corona pandemic, the flood disaster in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, but also the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine have ensured that people are more concerned with personal precautions for crisis and disaster scenarios " said Tiesler. This is indicated by the results of surveys that the BBK has been carrying out for a year and a half. The number of downloads and guides on precautionary questions sent by the BBK upon request have also increased.
Sources: Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance1, Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance2, Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance3, Bundestag.de, with material from DPA