Tomorrow: Annual siren-testing day




Wednesday, 6 February is annual siren testing day, as you are sure to notice at 1.30pm. As it is a practice only, there is no need to tune into the radio to await some ominous announcement, nor head to the nearest bunker.
 
In the country as a whole, there are in fact some 7,200 sirens installed in communities with more than 100 inhabitants, often on police or fire stations. They are maintained by the individual municipalities and cantons but come under the general responsibility of the Federal Office for Civil Protection (BABS). There are a further 2,200 mobile ones for use, if needed, in areas where fewer people live.
 
The sirens themselves used to be tested twice a year but because of their high level of reliability, tests have been held annually only since 1991.

The sirens would sound under a number of circumstances, such as after an accident at a power station or chemical factory or, for example, if dangerous substances escaped into the air as a result of an accident or terrorist attack. They can also be used in the event of major landslides and rockfalls.
 
Should a siren sound when not expected, as a rule, the public is expected to tune into the radio to listen to an announcement from the authorities; locals are also expected to warn their neighbours. Anyone living near a dam who suddenly hears 12 deep siren tones, each lasting 20 seconds, should leave the area immediately.

The last time a siren sounded in a real emergency was in 2017 in Verbier in the canton of Wallis after an accident in a chemical plant which led to a fire and much smoke. Prior to this, sirens in Bern warned locals of rising flood water in 2005 and 2012. Strangely enough, BABS does not keep a record of when the sirens are used in emergency situations.

As to who actually presses the button, this is usually the appropriate cantonal police, though a national Polyalert system has been in operation since 2015. Local emergency services, such as the fire brigade, also have the authority to sound them.
 
As to what would happen if there were a power cut when sirens needed to be sounded, it is good to know they are also equipped with batteries, so they can still sound even if a power cut lasted for five days. For this reason, BABS also recommends people have a battery-operated transistor radio, and spare batteries. As a back-up, loudspeakers could also be used, leaflets distributed, or even messengers sent out to broadcast the warning.

When BABS was asked whether all this was not a bit outdated bearing in mind today’s digital technology, they said that the current system was highly reliable and less subject to any interruption of the telecommunication network. However, a Swissalert website, Twitter account and an app were all introduced in 2015. So far, Swissalert has not itself been used to warn people, but this is due change this year.   
 


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