Why Berliners didn't hear any warning sirens Wednesday morning

The first annual testing of Germany's disaster warning systems is taking place today. But there were no howling sirens in Berlin – the reasons why lie in the capital's layout and history.

Warning sirens like these ones in Koblenz sounded across Germany as part of the first national warning day - just not in Berlin.
Warning sirens like these ones in Koblenz sounded across Germany as part of the first national warning day - just not in Berlin.dpa

Berlin-September 10 this year is a special day – today is national warning day. That might sound annoying at first, but it does make logical sense – because the days of howling sirens are long over. Now, mobile phones have the biggest role to play, even when it comes to use by emergency services.

On Thursday, at 11am, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance’s alert centre sent out a test alarm across the country, via sirens, warning apps and broadcasts on TV and radio.

In Berlin, however, the streets stayed quiet. The alert was distributed over warning apps and other similar measures because, according to Martin Pallgen, spokesperson for the city’s interior department, “there are no sirens here”. Berlin has not had civil defence sirens since the 1990s – the reason being that the city is too densely populated, and a siren in one neighbourhood would be audible in a neighbouring one, making it difficult to implement localised warnings.

The decision to hold today’s warning day was made in 2019 by Germany’s national and state governments, who agreed that from this year, alarm tests will be run on the second Thursday of every September. The measure is intended to on one hand raise awareness among the population of possible incidents and catastrophes like serious accidents, floods or forest fires. The idea behind it is that if people know in advance what the different siren sounds mean, they will be able to protect themselves better and faster. On the other hand, authorities also want to check that both analogue and digital warning systems will work in an emergency.

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An app instead of sirens - but will it reach everyone?

Berlin’s interior minister Andreas Geisel (SPD) confirmed the city was taking part in the warning day, despite the absence of noisy sirens. “Swift and most importantly reliable information and warnings are essential, in particular when it comes to unforeseen events like large fires or widescale power cuts.” In Berlin, warnings in emergency situations can be issued by the police, fire brigade or the Senat’s interior ministry. That could be done over the radio, TV, loudspeaker vans or through apps – just not sirens.

Sirens have been described as a “warning mechanism with an alerting effect”. That means that from 11am, almost everywhere across the country, the sound of an alarm alerted people to a potential danger, at which point they should turn on their radio or go online for more information. The official government warning app, NINA, sent a message to users. At 11.20am, a consistent one minute note was sounded to signal an all clear – but only in the areas where sirens are in operation. In Berlin, the warning app sent a message informing of the all clear. But the disadvantage of warning people of danger via the app is that people will have to have it downloaded on their phone ahead of any incident.

The decision to dismantle all of Berlin’s sirens after the end of the Cold War has been criticised for years. There will be many people who don’t have the radio on the whole day, don’t have the warning app installed on their phones, or who are commuters. In the event of a large scale power cut, all those people would be left in the dark.

Weekly tests are the old normal

Alarm sirens used to be more commonplace. In former East Germany, all sirens across the country would sound every Wednesday at 1pm. The classic siren warning originates from the time of the Second World War. During wartime, sirens were used to sound air raid warnings when enemy aircraft were spotted overhead.

After the war, different sirens were developed to signal fire, disaster or “ABC” (atomic, biological or chemical explosion) alarms.

In East Germany, the weekly Wednesday testing of alarms across the country was initiated centrally, according to the Brandenburg Bunker Museum Fuchsbau at Bad Saarow. That fact is not well known. From 5 May 1971, a “warning and alarm centre” at the country’s one time military command post regulated the sounding of alarms across the country. The trigger for sounding the signal would be communicated to all of the then district capitals, and then transmitted to the siren network.