Margo Klaos, set to take over running the Estonian Rescue Board in April, said on the "Esimene stuudio" evening talk show that civil defense preparedness for a major martial crisis remains modest, while the war in Ukraine has made it a priority.
Estonia adopted a civil defense concept in 2018, which created grand expectations for crisis preparedness. However, financing did not follow.
"Looking at [the situation in] Ukraine today, the global security situation, I believe civil defense will amount to more than just talk," Klaos said.
He said that it would be an exaggeration to suggest nothing has been started. Less expensive parts of civil defense are in the works. "Several things have been done the results of which are just around the corner. One such example is the EE-ALARM civil warning system. There will be a presentation this week, and it constitutes a major milestone."
However, little funding has been allocated for civil defense in state budgets, which Klaos believes will have consequences. "We have been postponing it for five years, while we realized, as did much of Europe and the rest of the world, that these preparations must be serious only after the situation in Europe became as stark as it is today," he said.
Klaos said that while Estonia has spent 30 years preparing for civilian crises, civil defense readiness for a military conflict is modest. "There is a major gap in the capabilities we will need in wartime," he offered.
The coronavirus pandemic constituted a lesson for those who had prepared for managing crises, as well as those who never considered the possibility, Klaos said. "All levels of Estonia, from the central government, through local governments to the ordinary citizen learned once-in-a-century lessons. The simplest example could be the question of whether to close schools in the case of extensive power outages. The Covid crisis made it clear – schools have to stay open, education must continue," he suggested.
"Right now, when preparing for a power outages crisis, we should also consider whether schools should be closed or whether other solutions can be found should the power go out for extended periods. A part of society automatically shuts down as soon as schools, more so kindergartens, close."
Most crises are similar from the crisis management point of view. The main thing is to consider where solutions are possible and open up communication between all sides, Klaos suggested. "Appropriate information – what is happening, how and why people should behave a certain way – saves the most lives," he said.
Klaos said that the Rescue Board has been telling people how to prepare for crises for years, while many understandably do not react to such prompts. "As long as the threat is not acute, and people do not believe something like that could really happen, we can keep talking about disruptions to vital services and the like, while people just think they can go to the store tomorrow. The truth is that once those services are disrupted, it will be too late and you'll have to make do with what you've stockpiled," he remarked.
We've learned a lot from our colleagues in Ukraine. "More lessons that we ever imagined possible," the incoming director of the Rescue Board said.
Estonia will have its first public warning sirens this summer. From there, people will have to learn how to behave. In the case of war, this means seeking shelter in basements, Klaos said. "For those with no basements to hand, we are in the process of mapping out public shelters. The biggest problem rescue workers are having in Ukraine is that people are getting used to sirens. Ukraine is currently pursuing a campaign to encourage people to seek shelter."
Klaos also said that while recent wage hikes have improved rescue workers' motivation, their salary should reach 1.2 times the national average.
"Rescue workers' moral has clearly improved in January 2023. It is helped by the fact we are talking about even bigger salaries. We want the top professionals, people who respond after just one minute to save people and their possessions – we want their salary to make them feel valued and appreciated," Klaos said.
Editor: Barbara Oja, Marcus Turovski