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

Germany announced this week that it would reform its disaster warning system after deadly flooding. But why didn't this happen sooner?

Germany knew its disaster warning system wasn't good enough - why wasn't it improved?
The devastated community in Mayschoß, Rhineland-Palatinate, after the floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

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.


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.

READ ALSO: Germany to warn of future floods with text alerts

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.”

A temporary bridge is erected in flood-hit Bad Neuenahr. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

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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One dead and two badly injured after Bavaria storm wreaks havoc

A cyclist was killed by a falling tree during a severe thunderstorm that hit several regions of Bavaria on Monday.

One dead and two badly injured after Bavaria storm wreaks havoc

Germany has been struck by weather extremes over the past few days, with record-breaking heat of up to 39C followed by rainstorms and cooler temperatures. 

While firefighters in Brandenburg battled to douse a raging forest fire on Monday, parts of Bavaria were hit by sudden storms that left a trail of wreckage in their path.

Freising to the north of Munich was one of the districts that was caught in a sudden thunderstorm on Monday. 

According to the district office, a cyclist from Baden-Württemberg was killed when a tree fell in the storm, a 15-year-old pedestrian and car driver were left with severe injuries.

Police helicopters and water rescue teams were also dispatched to search for a woman who they believed had been caught by surprise while bathing in a lake near Moosburg but were unable to find her. 

READ ALSO: Heatwave: Germany sees record high temperatures

Thousands of homes were also left without electricity when the storm damaged parts of the high-voltage grid that runs from Munich to Uppenborn via Moosburg. A spokesperson for Stadtwerke München (SWM) told BR24 that on Tuesday morning an estimated 13,000 people were temporarily without power. 

‘Such devastation’ 

The village of Großaitingen to the west of Munich was one of the places to be worst-hit in the shock thunderstorm. 

The storm tore holes in the roofs of several houses, and the ridge of St. Nicholas Church had to be secured with the help of a crane because roof panels had come loose. 

There were also reports that entire rows of trees had been ripped up by their roots and that sports fields and construction sites were left in chaos. Around 140 volunteer firefighters were called out to fix tiles on roofs and clear away fallen trees. 

Storm destruction Freising

A tin roof is ripped off a building the district of Freising, Bavaria, on June 20th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

Speaking to BR24 in the aftermath of the storm, Großaitingen resident Claudia Wiedemann described a sudden burst of rain and hail that lasted about ten minutes and destroyed a linden tree at the entrance to her farm.

“There’s never been such devastation in the village before,” another resident said. 

Local police services said that Landshut to the northeast of Moosburg was also badly affected by the storm, with residents reporting seeing trees ripped out of their roots and traffic signs blown over.

According to a spokesperson for the local police force, 14 tree trunks had to be cleared out of the road. 

One resident also reported that their skylight had been smashed by large hailstones.

As of Tuesday, train services between Landshut and Freising were still disrupted. Operators said a rail replacement bus service was in place. 

More storms expected

The German Weather Service (DWD) had previously set a Stage 4 warning – the highest level possible  for parts of Upper and Lower Bavaria due to the threat of extreme storms. 

Over the next few days, the DWD predicts that there could be repeated thunderstorms throughout Bavaria – in some cases with heavy rain, hail and gale-force winds of up to 80 kilometers per hour.

In the rest of the country, there will be sunny spells with temperatures of between 27 and 30C as well as occasional rain and thunderstorms.

These are likely to strike across western Germany on Thursday and spread to Bavaria again on Friday. The northeast, meanwhile, could see more heavy rain before sunshine and warm weather returns across Germany on Saturday.