Estonia still has yet to find funding for setting up potential shelter sites. Now the state intends to review previously mapped out shelter sites and will try to quickly strike deals with their owners.
Photos and videos of Ukrainians seeking shelter from bombs, shelling and rocket fire in recent days have seen phones ringing at every news desk.
While the military and officials confirm that Estonia is currently not under direct military threat, resources such as the Be Prepared! ("Ole valmis!") app created by the Women's Voluntary Defense Organization (Naiskodukaitse) are helping residents prepare for emergencies. This app notes that the best place to shelter from an airstrike, for example, is in a basement.
"A good place to shelter is made from reinforced concrete, either underground or, if it isn't underground, then it's at least surrounded by embankments and doesn't have any windows," said Rescue Board adviser Lea Vainult.
Thousands of prefab concrete slab apartment buildings across Estonia fit this bill. "In bigger cities, there are still old underground parking garages built by large buildings," Vainult noted. "Or there are new shopping malls with their own underground parking garages. These are good spots too."
Plans existed, went unfunded
Three years ago, an expert shelter committee established under the Government Office concluded its work. In its final report, committee specialists determined that it isn't reasonable for the state to start building dedicated shelters, but also that Soviet-era civil defense shelters were largely crumbling as well.
Nonetheless, plenty of potential shelter sites actually exist, the expert committee said, recommending that they be set up and marked as shelters just in case. The Rescue Board was tasked with the job.
"The Rescue Board did then apply for €6 million in funding for doing so," said Viola Murd, undersecretary for rescue, emergency services and crisis management at the Ministry of the Interior. "That means €2 million per year. At the time, this additional application for the state budget did not get funded."
According to Vainult, this funding would have gone toward several applications. First of all, the Rescue Board was to hire engineers to establish appropriate specific requirements for shelters.
"And then to ensure that the owner of a site would bring it up to code," she continued. "The plan was to sign an agreement with the owner and pay them a fee for it."
Many sites already mapped
The general public was to be informed of the locations of civil defense shelters. But budgetary decisions nonetheless went in other directions until Russian President Vladimir Putin turned European security on its head. Among the additional millions of euros allocated to national defense in January are the salaries of seven Rescue Board officials.'
"They will be tasked with both preparations for large-scale evacuations as well shelering," Vainult explained.
Nonetheless, this accounts for only half the equation. "We don't have a budget for paying tolerance fees, for example, or to propose any changes to these places," she continued, adding that a list of potential shelter sites themselves already exists.
Last summer, Piret Avarmaa defended a master's thesis at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences in which she mapped out potential shelter sites in four Ida-Viru County cities and towns with the help of Estonian, Ukrainian and Georgian experts.
Avarmaa likewise reached the conclusion that the best possible option was to take shelter in the basement of a reinforced concrete building. The more floors a building has, the more likely it would protect people from a direct hit as well, the experts consulted for the master's thesis found.
The expert shelter committee picked out approximately 75 potential shelter sites throughout Estonia, some 45 of which are located in Tallinn. The expert committee also took into account what would be potential military targets, such as Tapa due to the presence of allied troops there, or bigger industrial towns.
Work to continue now
According to Murd, work must now continue with the mapped out sites, regardless of the lack of funding.
"The current situation has changed completely," she stressed. "And right now we have quickly employed this same plan. We will talk to building owners and local governments again about how and under what conditions these sites could be used."
In 2019, it was determined that building owners were prepared to help out the state by offering their buildings as shelter sites for a total price tag of €6 million.
"Personally I very much hope and expect that our society's understanding and preparedness has drastically changed today in connection with the events beginning last Thursday," Murd said. "And I believe that the motivation to contribute is much higher than it was before. So it may be the case that it is possible to do this at significantly lower cost."
The undersecretary confirmed that the Ministry of the Interior intends to seek funding again from next year's budget, but that for now, it will do what it can with the resources it already has.
"The hope is to get an overview sometime in the next few months of how many of these buildings are suitable for what, precisely," she said. "And under what conditions the owners will agree, then, to their use."
All of this is necessary for the preparedness phase. Should an actual crisis hit and people need to take shelter, seeking an owner's permission isn't that important anymore. According to Vainult, objects can be taken into compulsory use.
"In which case the state will then pay damages later for expenses incurred," she explained.
Editor: Aili Vahtla