If you hear air raid sirens going off around the beginning of the month, don’t be alarmed: the sirens are part of an emergency system test across the country. But why does the Netherlands rely on this system in the first place?
If you aren’t expecting it, it’s hard not to envision squadrons of World War II fighters and bombers roaring overhead when you hear the eerie sirens going off. But just check the calendar: if it’s noon on the first Monday of the month, then there is no need to panic. That is the chosen time and date for municipalities across the Netherlands to test their emergency broadcast system (unless that day is a national holiday or religious holiday, or coincides with Remembrance Day ceremonies).
The test usually lasts around a minute and a half, and the sirens are meant to be used in case of emergency, be it natural disaster, fires or industrial accidents that could expose nearby residents to hazardous materials, to warn people that a dangerous situation is occurring in their area. If the sirens last for longer than around 90 seconds, then there is a real emergency of some kind occurring and anyone within earshot should go indoors, close windows and doors and find their local emergency broadcaster on television or the radio.
World War II
The first national siren system was set up during World War II in 1939 and was used to warn citizens of air raids. The system was part of the Civil Air Raid Protection Services, and initially relied on volunteers. After Germany occupied the Netherlands, civil servants took over operation of the system.
The monthly tests started in 1952 during the Cold War for civil defence, and after the Berlin wall fell in 1989, there was a four-year period when the monthly tests were not held – and the sirens used to be even louder, so at least the modern version is slightly less terrifying. The system was replaced by what is now known as the Warning and Alert System in 1993. Since 2003, the alarms have undergone monthly testing.
There are currently 3,800 sirens across the Netherlands, but by 2021, the monthly siren test is set to become a thing of the past. NOS reports Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus recently informed parliament that despite an original deadline of 1 January 2020 to phase out the sirens, it would take until at least 2021 for the emergency system to fully switch from the sirens to SMS-based warnings called NL Alert.
The government has been in the process of rolling out NL Alert since 2008. The system was originally created to ensure that deaf citizens would also be informed in case of an emergency, but it will eventually be utilised to target messages to people living in areas impacted by an emergency. But the phone system remains inconsistent: During a national test back in 2013, only 12 percent of people actually received the message and about 40 percent of people either did not have a phone or had one that was not equipped to receive the text.
The overlap between the two systems is also causing headaches for the authorities: in February, a chemical leak from a tank lorry caused a noxious odour to spread across multiple provinces of the Netherlands, but the sirens in the municipality where the spill originated did not go off and not all residents received an NL Alert.
The justice and security ministry wants more certainty that the NL Alert system will work reliably before ending the Warning and Alert System sirens, but once the bugs are worked out, then newcomers to the country will no longer fight the urge to panic around lunchtime at the beginning of each new month.
Photo source: Tim Geers/Flickr