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Germany knew its disaster warning system wasn’t good enough – why wasn’t it improved?


In September 2020, Germany held it’s first ‘warning day’ aimed at raising awareness about how aimed at test out Germany’s warning systems and preparing the public for what could happen in the event of an emergency, like flooding, fires or other extreme danger. 

“When the sirens start wailing and your radio broadcast is interrupted on September 10th, don’t be scared,” said deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer at the time. “This is a practice exercise.”

But it was branded a failure when sirens did not go off in many places across the country – because they’d been dismantled after the end of the Cold War – and there were delays in the message getting through on Germany’s warning smartphone apps Nina and KatWarn.

“Insights have been gained and will be taken into account in the further development of the warning system,” said the Interior Ministry at the time. 

This is important now as Germany reckons with the deaths of at least 180 people, with dozens still missing after catastrophic flooding in western regions. It appeared to show just how ill-prepared the country is for extreme situations. 

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Although the head of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) Armin Schuster said Germany’s alarm infrastructure worked as planned during the flooding that hit the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, saying that notifications were sent out via warning apps, the country’s disaster response is under the spotlight.

“The warnings did not reach the population in many cases,” deputy chairman of the Free Democrats (FDP), Michael Theurer told The Local. 

“The communication problems in German civil protection are well known; the 2020 warning day was a fiasco. Since then, far too little has happened, so Warning Day 2021 was cancelled as a precaution to prevent another embarrassment.”
The warning app on the 2020 ‘Warntag’. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

Many have asked why Germany hasn’t yet introduced a cell broadcast warning system, which would see all residents receive a mobile phone text alert in the event of disaster situations. 

Earlier this week federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Germany will issue mobile phone alerts in future although there is no timeline for when this will happen.

What’s going on with Germany’s public warning system?

Max Mehl of the association, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), analysed Germany’s warning system along with experts in civil protection and mobile networking after the ‘Warntag” flop.  

They wanted to figure out why the apps failed, and what a more “resilient and open system” can look like.

“Most prominently we found that the system architecture was not appropriate for the actual task,” he told The Local. “The warning day last year was quite realistic in this regard: a number of authorities issue warnings to parts of the population. However, everything goes via a central system and that was overloaded.”

Mehl said this caused the breakdown in issuing alerts through the app on the ‘warning day’.

Government spokeswoman Martina Fietz last week said the country’s weather warning system and mobile phone apps had “worked” but admitted that “our experiences with this disaster show that we need to do more and better”.

It’s unclear how many people received warnings during the recent flood catastrophe.

However, Mehl believes Germany should have already been using the cell broadcast system.
“Unlike today’s unicast (one to one) system it is broadcast, so it is one to many. It sends messages to all mobile users in a given region via SMS, so no app has to be installed, and there is no requirement on mobile internet which can easily be broken or overloaded in emergency situations.

“Also, it does not require state authorities to know the mobile number. One does not even have to have a German phone number; as long as a cell tower is in reach, the message can be received.”
A number of countries use the mobile phone alert system, including the US, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, or Romania.
Mehl said that cell broadcasts will also be mandatory via the EU-Alert system that has to be implemented in all EU member states from June 2022.
Why doesn’t Germany have mass warning messages already?

Politicians, including BBK’s Armin Schuster have said that costs and data protection concerns of the broadcast system are important to consider.

Experts believe it could cost around €10 million for each network operator as well as operating costs.

On July 20th, federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer told Bild that he was in favour of SMS alerts but the “political will has been lacking in some places”, citing data protection issues.

“Not everyone has always been enthusiastic about the idea in recent months,” Seehofer said during a special crisis meeting on disaster systems in parliament on Monday. “But I’ve decided that we’re going to do it… There is no reasonable argument against it.”

Horst Seehofer at the meeting on Monday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Yet the data protection argument doesn’t appear to hold up – unlike text messages, “it is not a targeted communication from a sender to a recipient, so it doesn’t require operators to have individual phone numbers,” said German news magazine Spiegel. “Messages can be tailored to the specific area, and there are no problems with privacy protection.” 

“It is incomprehensible to me that this system has not been introduced long ago,” Michael Theurer told The Local. “The FDP has been calling for it for years.”

Max Mehl said the exact reasons why Germany had decided against the cell broadcast mobile warning system were unclear. 

“But we know that this feature is not a requirement for mobile network providers in Germany. Since it is not a legal requirement for them, they deactivated the feature to save costs,” he said.

Could it have potentially saved lives during the recent flooding?

“Cell broadcasts would certainly have been able to inform more people in advance,” said Mehl. “However, I cannot and do not want to evaluate whether this would have saved lives.”

How can Germany warn better?

Although Mehl said there are benefits to an app-based warning system – such as users being able to request specific information – he said he was in favour of text alerts, and using apps as a supplement.

“My personal take is that mobile cell broadcasts are one of the most effective ways to reach a lot of people in emergencies: a vast majority of people have a mobile phone at hand and will often look at it – unlike warnings via optional apps, radio or TV,” he said. “However these alternatives can provide useful additional information.”

Meanwhile, the BBK’s Armin Schuster called for sirens to be reinstated in more areas.

Mehl said sirens “may work as well, but fail to give information about the actual emergency that happens: the actions citizens have to take in case of a flood compared to a nuclear disaster are very different for example.”

“Also, we cannot put sirens everywhere, for example in rural regions, but network connectivity coverage is already much better.”

Theurer said the need for action is “manifold”.

“It’s about better communication between the authorities, strengthening volunteerism or upgrading the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance,” he said.

“Above all, however, we need more assistance to enable people to help themselves more. For example, the BBK has published a guidebook on emergency preparedness and the right way to act in emergency situations. Why isn’t it sent to all households?”

Local or federal responsibility?

The other topic under the microscope is: who is responsible for coordinating the disaster response?

Germany’s crisis management begins at the local level, with the central government’s Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) only stepping in when that fails. The BBK needs the community, district or state to first declare a state of emergency. 

The question is did mayors and district councils react in time to the warnings from the experts, and get those messages to people?

In March, Seehofer presented a plan for reforming disaster management. It said that joint expert centres of the federal and state governments are to be established, signalling that there will be more collaborative work in future. 

But after the flooding happened, Seehofer spoke out against the federal government coordinating in the event of a crisis.

“It would be completely inconceivable for such a catastrophe to be managed centrally from any one place,” said Seehofer. “You need local knowledge.”

The Local contacted the Federal Interior Ministry to answer some questions but they did not get back to us. 



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