Search for pocket sirens

The Estonian Ministry of Interior has recently announced that it is launching a search for a pocket siren,1 but this story leaves out one important detail. The Estonian state was already working on creating an app that would allow such a capability to be connected, along the lines of the Ukrainians’ DIIA (ДІЯ)… until the project was cancelled.

While one of the most iconic examples of the mass implementation of emergency warnings for population protection purposes dates back to the Second World War, when the world’s first air raid sirens sounded in London on 3 September 1939,2 this has been a daily reality in Ukraine since 24 February 2022. In contrast, the notifications from the Estonian arena of large-scale population protection are strongly reminiscent of the adventures of the Simpletons (the so-called act-before-you-think people). 

In the field of risk notification, the current SMS system would reach all people in Estonia within half an hour (sic!). Thirty minutes is a hopelessly delayed response, illustrated by the increasingly common tactic of the aggressor to first strike civilian infrastructure and then, when rescuers and medics arrive on the scene, to follow up with a second strike.

Sirens are also being installed for the last two years4 with only few really existing and now the search is on for a new pocket siren capability that could actually be added to our state app, following the example of the Ukrainians’ Air Alarm (Повітряна тривога) app.

This time, the novel term “pocket siren” is defined in Ukraine as the ability built into an official Air Alarm application launched with the support of the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine (as well as into other pre-full-scale-war official applications, like Digital Kyiv, Київ Цифровий)  to start blaring when an airstrike threat is detected in the area where a person is.

Compared to an SMS system, the benefits are obvious – it is faster and it is harder to miss a screaming phone than an SMS. In the latter case, the person may simply not notice it and the threat warning will then fail to serve its purpose – the person will not be aware of the threat in time to, for example, shelter, assuming they have anywhere to shelter.

It is important to recall that already in 2019, under the motto “a state in smartphones”, Ukraine launched the “Digital State” programme, implementing e-governance tools and numerous e-services together with the Ministry of Digital Transformation.

One of the most successful results of the digitalisation reform is the DIIA application (ДІЯ, which means action in Ukrainian and is a shortened form of держава і я, which means state and I), which, with the help of the Ukrainians, our Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications also developed into an mState last year, but which Minister Tiit Riisalo decided to discontinue.5

On the Estonian side, the mState application was developed by a number of RIA officials for 810 000€, based on a concrete plan, support for a solid architecture and continuous guidance from both the agency and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. Until it was stopped.5

Unfortunately, the app, which was developed with the Ukrainians, was not a known success and was abandoned on the political level amidst much media hype, causing confusion among some government officials involved in the development of the app. This is an example of the lack of a comprehensive approach to national defence in Estonia.

In Estonia there is a lack of understanding of what comprehensiveness is and what it looks like when, to put it bluntly, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing and, if it does, it is far from cooperative.

It would have been relatively easy to add a pocket siren extension to the Estonian mState application that was under development, as was done in a hurry in Ukraine, where it is still naively hoped that Estonia will learn from their war experience and understand the seriousness of protecting the population before it all has to be invented in the middle of a new reality.

Fundamental questions remain unanswered – why is it that Estonia, with its already scarce resources, is unable to provide solutions in a well-thought-out, systematic way and in cooperation with other public authorities? Why do we need duplicate systems that do not work in acute crises because the risk scenarios have not been thought through?

As long as there are no answers to these questions, and substantive cooperation remains the sphere of act-before-you-think, the term ‘comprehensive civil defence’ is shorthand for ‘what is not, is not’.

× The joint op-ed by Sofiia Kostytska and Anne-May Nagel was published on March 20, on Delfi webportal. Photo: cellphone (Valeriia Miller/Pexels, 2019).

2 Kostytska, S. 2023. Õhuhäiresireenid Eestis ja Ukraina kogemus. ERR, 10.03.2023.

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