3, 2, 1 … Attention, air raid!

Sofia Kostytska —

Last year, it was announced that major Estonian cities would get air raid sirens and SMS-warning systems were recently tested as well. Is Estonian approach to building warning systems efficient and what can be learned from the Ukrainian experience?

In October 2022, Estonian authorities announced plans on introducing emergency sirens in 22 bigger settlements across Estonia with the initial network of 100 siren posts to be installed by July 2023; the allocated €4.5 million is the biggest investment in civil defence for the last 30 years.1

However, according to Viola Murd from the Ministry of the Interior,2 the maintenance fund for these will be “zero again. Estonian authorities have also come up with the location-based SMS alert system, which has been set up to warn
people of localised dangers in their area.3

The importance of these steps is obvious: emergency warning systems are a basic tool of ensuring civil security during crises, ranging from natural disasters and technological catastrophes to any other wide-scale hazards, like military aggression, when every minute matters.

At the same time, are these measures sufficient and which alternatives can be implemented, taking in account the Ukrainian experience?

Systems of air raid alarms: marching into the smartphone era

The concept of wide-scale and long-distance emergency warning systems is far from new. Ranging from visual alerts using fire or smoke to auditory warnings involving drums or church bells – the history of the humanity is full of amazing yet terrifying examples of methods to convey messages about approaching natural disasters or enemy troops.

Over the centuries emergency warning systems have evolved, becoming an integral part of our lives. Truly, most households have fire alarm systems installed, our cars are equipped with anti-theft systems, policemen use whistles to inform other officers or civilians about the wrongdoing. Loud shrieking of the siren and beaming red light is deeply associated with danger, calling our attention to urgent response.

Perhaps one of the most vivid and recent examples of massive implementation of street emergency warnings for the civil defense purposes can be dated back to the World War II with the world’s first air-raid sirens sounding in London on 3 September 1939.4 Unsurprisingly, air raid sirens formed a part of the soundscape of modern-time wars, including Russian war in Ukraine.

Starting from 24 February 2022, air raid alarms have become a harsh everyday reality with kamikaze drones terrorizing Ukrainian cities, and frequent missile strikes targeting residential areas and infrastructure in all parts of the country.

During the period from the beginning of the full-scale invasion to 24 February 2023, the air raid sirens went off in Ukraine more than 21,2 thousand times in total with the longest registered air raid alarm in Nikopol (lasting for almost 19 hours in a row).5

678 air raid alarms have occurred in Kyiv with the general duration of more than 758 hours, 6 and the statistics in other cities, in particular in the Eastern and Southern regions of the country, is even more striking. Outdoor sirens are definitely one of the important tools to keep citizens informed of the possible air strikes, and in most Ukrainian cities special siren devices were installed in the streets decades ago.

However, in some areas the coverage of such devices was insufficient, and people could simply not hear the air raid alarm; just as well, such devices can relatively easily be damaged and require maintenance to remain functional.

Therefore, the idea to come up with alternatives or supplementary mechanisms to “spread the word”, or, to be more accurate, to “spread the siren” seemed not only reasonable, but vitally important.

Simple solutions to keep citizens informed: Ukrainian examples

Soon after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, both governmental and volunteer-supported initiatives as to the emergency warning software started to appear. Now in most parts of Ukraine, it is practically impossible to
miss an air raid alarm – all your devices start screaming in addition to the siren howling in the street.

How do Ukrainians know that the time is right to go to the bomb shelter? There is a number of reliable sources of information that can be used whether separately or along with alternatives (better safe than sorry, they say):

1. Specialized applications

Smartphone applications (IOS and Android) 1 have been designed specifically with the aim to inform people about the air raid alarms. As an example, “Повітряна тривога” (“Air raid alert”) application was created with the support of the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine and launched on the 5 th day of the full-scale war.7

The application supports critical notifications, so even muted or “sleep mode” cell phones emit the siren sound; you can manually change the region to see whether there is an air raid alert in other parts of the country. 

Similar application, “єТривога” (“eAlert” 2 ) was presented by the group of volunteers in the first days of the full-scale war. The interface of the application is simple and user-friendly, and the manual change of the region is available, as well.

2. Air raid alarms integrated in existing official applications

Another way to address the issue of informing citizens about air raid alarms is a relatively easy one – update existing official software, which is already widely used and well-known.

As an example, the “Київ Цифровий” (“Kyiv Digital”) application, previously used in the capital of Ukraine for public transport purposes (buying QR tickets for rides in public transport, paying parking bills) was improved with a map of shelters and air raid notifications added. With the most recent update, critical notifications are supported as well.8

3. Interactive maps of air raid alert status in different regions of the country

There is a multitude of reasons why instruments to see the “spreading” of air raid alerts over the whole territory of the country are necessary for civilians. Are you worried about your relatives in other parts of the country?

Do you have an online call scheduled with your business partners in another city? Are you trying to predict whether there is a chance of air raid alert in your city, based on the nearby regions turning “red” on the map? Numerous initiatives with interactive online maps were launched both with the governmental support 3 or by IT volunteers.4

4. Social media 

For those, who are unwilling to install additional applications on their smartphones or monitor specialized websites on the permanent basis, another solution to keep updated is available.

Most local governments or city mayors have their official social media accounts in Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. Starting from 24 February 2022, such accounts started posting about the air raid alarms on the local level. Similarly, numerous Telegram channels 5 were created specifically for the air raid alert purposes – both official and volunteer-based.

5. Cell Broadcast technology

All the instruments listed above have a significant drawback: once the Internet access is disabled (for example, due to shelling of the communications infrastructure), such tools are basically useless. Even worse, any kind of

SMS notifications might not be properly working in such conditions, as well. Therefore, it is nothing but reasonable to prepare “plan B” options to keep civilians safe and informed.

In September 2022, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine started testing notification system based on the Cell Broadcast technology. This location-based technology delivers messages quicker than SMS, and it works on muted or “sleep mode” smartphones.9

Needless to say, all abovementioned tools are most useful if implemented consistently. Approach to building civil defence has to be thorough and take the best of the existing technological solutions, for citizens to be informed and safe, the Ukrainian experience is definitely worth learning from.

Arvamuslugu on ilmunud 10.03.2023 rahvusringhäälingu ERR veebiportaalis. Photo: Bell telephone magazine (1922).


1 Krjukov et al. 2022. Eesti ostab Slovakkia ettevõttelt ohuteavitussireenid. ERR, 26.10.2022. (accessed 08.03.2023).
2 Murd, V. 2022. Elanikkonnakaitses on meil vaja tasuda 30-aastane võlg. ERR, 09.09.2022. (accessed 08.03.2023).
3 Ots, M. 2023. Riik on nüüd võimeline saatma elanikele asukohapõhist ohuteavitust. ERR, 19.01.2023. (accessed 08.03.2023).
5 [Anon.], 2023. What is this service about? Air-alarms.in.ua. (accessed 08.03.2023).

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