Warning of flooding (symbolic image)
Photo: Rupert Oberhäuser / imago images / Rupert Oberhäuser
The expert couldn't hide her anger.
"We were able to see several days in advance that the affected area would be flooded," Hannah Cloke from Reading University in Great Britain told SPIEGEL.
She was one of the founders of the European flood warning system Efas.
It was, she says, set up "to prevent precisely this loss of life."
That didn't work out well enough. At least 175 people did not survive the flood disaster in western Germany, and many more are still missing. Parallel to the clean-up work in the affected areas, there is a heated discussion: Why could not more residents be brought to safety - when the meteorological danger was apparently clear and was also communicated by the German Weather Service?
When looking for answers to the question of how to warn people of dangers as effectively as possible, how to avoid such failures as in the case of floods in the future, one has to deal with technical aspects. For example, with the question of why so-called cell broadcast has not yet been used in Germany. After all, technology has been available for around three decades with which considerable parts of the population could be reached in the event of a crisis: You don't need sirens or apps on smartphones - an ancient cell phone from the early days of technology is sufficient.
In this way, messages can be sent from a cellular base station to all cellular phones in the corresponding radio cell.
A total of 1395 characters are available for the message, nobody has to register, no information from the recipient is required or collected - you can imagine the whole thing like the loudspeaker truck of the 21st century.
Cell Broadcast is to come in the coming year
"The introduction of cell broadcast in Germany has so far failed due to political will," complained Manuel Atug this week. The IT expert is the spokesman for the “AG Kritis”, a voluntary and independent association of experts in critical infrastructure. The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) could not establish the technology, the authority of the authority was not sufficient. "It needs a decision by the legislature." It now seems to be moving closer: Cell broadcast should be able to be used in Germany from next summer.
The question of how best to organize warning systems also has social aspects. Among other things, it is about how the messages are best formulated and how they are received by the recipients. Political scientist Christoph Meyer from King's College in London deals with such questions. Normally his work is more about threatening wars or human rights violations, says the researcher in an interview with SPIEGEL, but many of the basic problems in this area also emerged in the event of dangers such as floods or pandemics.
A warning alone does not help - it must also be perceived as such and translated into practical and early action.
"A basic problem is that most warning systems are designed from the point of view of the experts who make predictions - and not from the perspective of those who have to act accordingly," says Meyer.
This often leads to "failed communication and mutual recriminations, as we are now experiencing again".
That means: The experts are unhappy because they saw it coming - and the people affected are, well, affected - because despite the prognoses they can feel the dramatic consequences of the crisis firsthand because life and life's achievements have been lost.
And because there is this feeling that it didn't have to come to that.
Researcher Meyer has drawn up a list of ten more or less specific pieces of advice.
To list them all would go too far.
However, the following note is prominently found, for example: Even precise predictions are useless if those at risk are not also specifically informed how they can still prevent or reduce their own harm.
"The recommendations for action that can actually be implemented at this point in time must be clearly stated."
Deliberately not triggering sirens
So when the weather service warns of certain amounts of rain, the resident of a normally harmless brook does not yet know that her house may soon be under water up to the first floor. If you specifically address this danger in the warning, at least people and animals can be brought to safety, maybe even a few things that are important for the family can literally be brought to dryness.
One of the other suggestions made by the scientist is that the authority to warn and react when this is possible should be transferred to the lowest possible administrative level. In addition, the producers of the warnings - in the event of a flood, for example meteorologists and hydrologists - would have to be brought together with decision-makers in advance. In this way, one can avoid misunderstandings and jointly determine how an impending danger is to be communicated effectively on site. “You have to practice these things beforehand,” says Meyer. Disaster control exercises would also have to include the experts, because of whose warnings the emergency services were set on the march in the first place.
None of this helps when people make decisions in dangerous situations that turn out to be wrong, at least in retrospect. The Rheinisch-Bergische Kreis admitted on Friday that it had deliberately not triggered a siren alarm during the heavy rain last week. It was feared that the emergency number would otherwise be overloaded by calls from concerned citizens - because too many people would have called to find out why the sirens were actually wailing.