Infrastructure in the event of a disaster: “In extreme cases, people die”

Late on Sunday evening after the flood disaster in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, we reach the computer scientist Manuel Atug, who has just cleared parts of his parents’ house from the mud. Atug is co-founder and spokesman of the Critical Infrastructures Working Group (AG KRITIS) and after the failed warning day 2020 has a Expert analysis co-authored, in which the undesirable developments of warning and alarm chains were shown. As an expert of the federal government and state parliaments, Atug is repeatedly invited to committee hearings on a voluntary basis. He is also approved as an auditor for critical infrastructures in accordance with the BSI Act.

Mr. Atug, why couldn’t the people in the flood areas be warned early and all of them, even though the weather services sometimes sounded the alarm two days in advance?

Manuel Atug

(Image: Katrin Chodor Photography)

They were warned, yes, but a warning only works if you communicate in such a way that the recipient can perceive and understand it. Since my family was also affected and I have been helping on site in the last few days, I noticed that. If you say to someone: “That comes down to 160 liters per square meter”, then a lot of people cannot do anything with it without context. This is the right information for the relevant decision-maker or experts, but for other people it is cryptic.

However, it is always relevant how much rain falls in which time.

Exactly. “Two meter rise” is something that you may still understand in flood areas. But if you tell people: “In the worst case, there are these two meters within an hour” is something completely different.

Actually, apps like Katwarn and the “Emergency Information and Message App” (NINA) should be responsible for this.

I am a busy user of NINA, and it has reported to all three locations that I have entered. However, also there with partly cryptic formulations. Warning apps are part of the modular warning system (MoWaS) of the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Relief (BBK). This serves as a distributor for Katwarn, NINA and the other apps. Other recipients of these communications are public and private broadcasters, news agencies, billboard operators, and telecommunications companies and corporate pager services.

It sounds sensible to want to reach everyone at once.

If you want to reach everyone from private individuals to the crisis management team and the fire brigade with one formulation in one report, this may not be ideal.

Wouldn’t it be better then to divide it up according to the target group?

It would be nice if all variants and methods were used appropriately. One thing is of course: who do I warn, and with what content. The other would be to use all available channels. For example, NINA brings something for the warning in advance. However, if power and telecommunications connections are torn away, for example in the Ahr Valley, NINA can no longer report. Even the emergency power supply of intact transmission masts only lasts for a short time. For such cases we sometimes had 100,000 sirens in Germany, most of which no longer exist.

The sirens were mainly used to alert the voluntary fire brigade, so other citizens still do not know what is going on.

For this you should turn on the radio according to the old recommendations. And there we are at WDR: I followed the live ticker there on the Internet, but for a long time I only got information about locations and locations via Germany radio. That was really suboptimal, the chance to go through all channels was wasted. What was completely missing was television and local radio. For a long time the normal program ran on the WDR. They had already vowed to get better at the last flood, but this time many saw nothing of it.

What could be the reason?

What was going on at the level of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia was very slowly gaining momentum. Prime Minister Laschet was on an election campaign tour in Bavaria and canceled it very late – but some things run over his desk.

Are there any other channels besides the ones mentioned or almost forgotten technologies such as CB radio that could help with warnings?

CB radio and amateur radio are one option. However, there is also the function of cell broadcast in cellular networks, without any apps. Every device that is in the vicinity of the corresponding transmission mast automatically receives a message on the display, almost like an SMS. It can only contain the warning or a link so that people with smartphones can get more information.

This already exists in Greece, Italy and the Netherlands, among others. How is it with us?

That still doesn’t exist in Germany. There is an EU directive that provides for cell broadcast, among other things, and which must be implemented by mid-2022. The BBK is supposed to coordinate, but is not responsible for it. On the weekend after the floods, the BBK said that they would coordinate with the providers as to whether, when and how this could be introduced.

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