“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.
- Why weren’t residents of German flood zones all warned via text?
- Why Germany faces tough questions over its disaster response
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.
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.
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.