Abolishing old and trusted air raid sirens leads to criticism and concerns

The decision by outgoing Minister Dilan Yesilgöz to silence the familiar air raid sirens at the end of next year has set the tongues wagging. Not everyone thinks it is a safe idea that the government will soon only warn of danger via mobile phone, thanks to the modern variant of the air raid siren: NL-Alert.

Critics worry that people without smartphones, especially the elderly, will suffer from this. Pieter van Vollenhoven, chairman of the Victim Support Fund, has stated on platform X that he fully endorses the criticism. “The current alarm is immediately clear to everyone.”

Next year, the recognizable sound will resound for the last time on the first Monday of the month, between 12:00 and 12:05, for 1 minute and 26 seconds. Looking back, the air raid siren was introduced in the Netherlands in 1939, just before the Second World War, as part of the air protection service (LBD).

This group of volunteers had the task of warning the population about air raids and informing them of the measures to be taken. Sirens, large electric horns, were then placed in cities to warn residents of air raids. The air raid siren sounded for several minutes on May 10, 1940, when German Heinkel bombers headed towards Rotterdam and dropped a large number of bombs there.

Nuclear threat

Before the Cold War, the air raid siren system was upgraded in 1952 with a brand new siren network. Every first Monday of the month at 12 noon, sirens sounded as a reminder of the nuclear threat from Eastern Europe. They were served until 1986 by the Population Protection Agency (BB), which at that time had some 165,000 volunteers and managed the shelters.

Although they were rarely used to warn the population, the sirens were also heard during the threatened flooding of Tuindorp-Oostzaan in the 1960s. However, during the flood disaster of 1953 they remained silent.

In 1993, the old system made way for the Warning and Alert System (WAS), consisting of 4,278 large white poles with a beehive-like sound beacon. The monthly tests, initially stopped after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, were resumed.

Victims of fireworks disaster

From 1997 onwards, the siren was tested annually nationally on the first Wednesday in June, remaining silent for the rest of the year. Only once, in 2000, was the test skipped, out of respect for the victims of the fireworks disaster in Enschede. In September 2003, the monthly test was reinstated to increase awareness of the alarm system, with the exception of national or religious holidays on the first Monday of the month.

In recent years it has become apparent that air raid sirens have had their day. Several cabinets were already considering abolishing the system, but the decision was repeatedly postponed because the replacement NL-Alert did not function optimally. For example, people in rural areas and near the border often did not receive the messages, while on other phones messages sometimes arrived ten times.

Public Safety

In her decision, outgoing minister Yesilgöz states that in the most favorable case, more than 75 percent of the population can hear the alarm poles. She is supported in this by the Dutch Institute of Public Safety, which stated that the added value of the WAS poles could not be demonstrated.

In addition, they believe that the NL-Alert has developed and proven itself in recent years. In addition, the maintenance contracts for the WAS poles expire at the end of 2025, which, according to the outgoing minister, is the right time to dismantle the system. Additional warning systems will remain in place at some high-risk locations.

Opponents of stopping the air raid siren find it incomprehensible that the government assumes that everyone always has a telephone with them. There is also the fear that people will not be warned because their phone is not charged or is defective. They are also concerned about how people can be warned if the network is down, for example in the event of a disaster.

Telecom providers

NL-Alert is a system that can send alarm messages via transmission towers of Dutch telecom providers to mobile phones in a specific area. It was introduced in 2012. Since its inception, this drug has been used 538 times. During a disaster, serious incident or crisis, the government determines in which area the NL-Alert will be issued. The NL-Alert is also shown on digital advertising screens and travel information screens on trains, buses, trams and metros.

The free NL-Alert must be insensitive to overload on the mobile network. Every six months the government sends out a national inspection message on the first Monday in June and on the first Monday in December. Research from 2020 shows that almost nine in ten Dutch people aged 12 years older have received this check message. Of people aged 75 and over, 73 percent received the verification message on their mobile phone.