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Explained: France's emergency sirens and alert protocol

The Local France
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Explained: France's emergency sirens and alert protocol
Photo: Colin Maynard / Unsplash

France's civil defence sirens are tested monthly - and there's also a published emergency protocol which residents and regular visitors are encouraged to read.

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If you're in a French town on the first Wednesday of the month at 12 noon, you can expect to hear the sinister wailing of the emergency siren.

This is normal and happens 12 times a year.

Early in 2022, the tense situation in Ukraine led authorities to warn people in advance about the regular monthly test, to avoid panic. 

 

In a test situation, you should hear the siren sound for one minute and 41 seconds. 

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What to do in case of a real emergency

In case of a real emergency - such as the Lubrizol factory fire in September 2019 - the sirens will sound for much longer, in three spells of one-minute 41-seconds, broken by a five-second pause.

A 30-second siren indicates the end of any alert.

If you do hear the longer siren, indicating a genuine emergency, you are expected to be aware of likely dangers that could affect your area and take necessary precautions. 

The sirens are usually not used for police or crime-related alerts - for example they do not sound in case of a shooting or terror attack in an urban area.

They're more designed for an environmental alert such as a big fire that is giving off dangerous chemicals or an accident at a nuclear plant. They can also be used for a particularly extreme weather event.

In most cases, hearing the alert means heading to a closed area - switching off any air-conditioning or other ventilation systems - and tuning into France Inter and France Info or local radio stations. 

DO NOT 

Stay in a vehicle - roads must be cleared to facilitate the action of the emergency services. A vehicle gives a false sense of security. In the event of a flood, for example, 30 cm of water is enough to carry away a car and it cannot withstand the fall of a tree.

Try to collect children from school - educational establishments will keep your children safe until the end of the emergency

Stay near windows - certain circumstances (such as explosions, high winds) can break glass and injure anyone nearby.

Open windows to find out what's going on outside - the alert signal may be triggered due to air pollution - such as a toxic cloud - caused by an emergency incident. 

Light a naked flame - air pollution (toxic cloud, chemicals) may be flammable. Do not take the risk of triggering an explosion until the nature of the danger is fully identified.

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Leave your shelter without instructions from the authorities - the purpose of the alert signal is to keep people safe. As long as the alert is not lifted (continuous siren sound for 30 seconds), leaving the shelter exposes you to danger.

Take the elevator - Weather events can lead to power cuts and elevator breakdowns. The people there would therefore risk being trapped there.

Retrace your steps - in general and especially in the event of flooding or dam failure, never go back, in case you get trapped in the middle of rising waters, for example.

Downstream from a hydraulic structure, such as a dam

A specific “fog horn” type warning signal warns the population of the rupture of the structure or of a significant release of water. It includes a cycle of a minimum duration of two minutes, composed of sound emissions of two seconds separated by an interval of three seconds.

These sirens are tested every quarter - on the first Wednesday of March, June, September and December at 12.15pm. This exercise signal has only one 12-second cycle consisting of three two-second beeps separated by a three-second interval.

If you hear this sound outside the normal tests you should:

  • Evacuate and head to higher ground listed in the plans particuliers d’intervention (PPI) of the structure. Otherwise, head to the upper floors of a high and solid building;
  • In the event of the rupture of a hydraulic structure (such as a dam), the zones located downstream are flooded in a few minutes. Evacuate if possible, or move to a high point, such as the upper floors of a high and solid building.
  • Wait for instructions from the authorities or the end of alert signal (sound continues for 30 seconds) to leave the high points. 

France's other alert system is via text message - the FR-Alert system sends a text message to any phone within the area of the alert zone. This is accompanied by a loud alert sound, even if your phone is switched to silent.

FR-Alert - How France's emergency alert ststem works

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Comments (2)

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Anonymous 2022/03/03 08:26
In addition to these quarterly tests many villages test their systems every Sunday (ours does) and it triggers automatically if there is a loss of power (so in incidents of high winds in particular).
Anonymous 2022/03/02 15:30
Bonjour, in case of an emergency described above, are there any radio - or TV stations that broadcast emergency information in other languages, e.g. English or German? Thank you.

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