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Not one cent designated for emergency shelters despite €198 million request

Public emergency shelter signage, in Tallinn.
Public emergency shelter signage, in Tallinn. Source: Rescue Board.

During the state budget and budget strategy negotiation process, the Estonian Ministry of the Interior requested €198 million to build shelters for the purpose of protecting the population. However, the money was not granted.

When the residents of Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv and other Ukrainian towns began being hit by Russian shelling, Estonian politicians were talking about the importance of shelters. The first steps toward improving Estonia's network of shelters were taken last year, however, the officials responsible for population protection had hoped for bigger moves to be taken in the same direction over the coming years.

"The total amount additionally requested for shelters was €198 million over four years," said Priit Laaniste, head the Ministry of the Interior's rescue and crisis management department. With this amount of money, it would be possible to build primary shelter facilities for more than half of Estonia's population.

Quite soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the rescue services in Estonia began looking for places to designate as public shelters that would be easily accessible, could accommodate enough people, and would offer quick protection from flying debris. 180 such shelters have now been marked with orange stickers in locations across the country, and their work continues.

"At the moment, the public shelters are exactly as they were," said Laaniste, who belies improvements are needed.

Sten-Patrick Kreek, shelter adviser to the Estonian Rescue Board (Päästeamet), said that all public shelters should, at the very least, have air ventilation.

"The estimated cost of adapting each shelter would be approximately €100,000," said Laaniste, who added that there ought to be around 280 public shelters in Estonia. Ensuring they are all equipped with, among other things, water supply and ventilation, would require a total of €28 million.

2,400 basements to be renovated and shelters in new housing areas

In addition to looking for more places for public shelters, the rescue services are also encouraging people to review their own personal sheltering facilities. The application period for housing associations wishing to receive funding to make repairs in their basements has just come to an end.

Under the pilot project, €1.2 million will be distributed to housing cooperatives. "Over four years, €94 million should be distributed to housing associations," said Laaniste, who added that 2,400 apartment buildings would be able to benefit. "And with this, we could create the basic shelter conditions for around 400,000 people."

The third major focus, he said, needs to be on ensuring facilities are available for those living in private accommodation, particularly in areas containing new buildings, where basements are generally not available. "Additional shelters ought to be created in those areas. These would be smaller concrete buildings. You can see them in Israeli streetscapes, for example," said Laaniste.

He explained that, as a rule, Israel also has given these types of buildings peacetime functions. For example, some emergency shelters can also be used as bus shelters. They would be windowless, above-ground structures, primarily able to protect people from flying debris.

"In the event of a direct hit, it would offer no protection, but if a projectile falls a few dozen meters away, the people in the building are very likely to survive," said Laaniste.

One such building could accommodate up to 30 people. "And we estimated that we would need to build 540 of them over four years att a total cost of €73 million. The cost of a single shelter would be €115,000," Laaniste added.

A few million would also need to be spent on the administration of all this work as well as on training so that people know where the shelters are and how to access them in case of an emergency.

€0 for shelters

While currently, there is currently enough primary sheltering facilities for around ten percent of the Estonian population, the Ministry of the Interior wants to increase that to ensure spaces for up to half. This plan was put forward a few months ago during the state budget talks. "Unfortunately, the sheltering issue did not get any extra funds," Laaniste said.

So of the €198 million requested to build shelters, the coalition politicians designated precisely zero. However, civil protection received a total of €112 million over a four year period. The Ministry of the Interior received €35 million, though that will be used to continue activities, which had already begun previously.

"The money will go, for example, on maintaining the siren systems, which are currently being installed. We've purchased further supplies that need to be stored somewhere and we're acquiring more vehicles that need to be maintained," said Laaniste. He also said the money would be spent on outreach work to explain to people how to be better prepared for crisis situation. The same pot must also be used to strengthen the enforcement structures.

Support funds for apartment buildings proved popular

The interior ministry is also discussing whether to take money from other activities to make the amount available in subsidies to renovate shelters in private housing buildings next year about the same size as it is this year.

"But we will decide more precisely after we know the results of this year's pilot project," said Laaniste.

"This fall, we received a total of 55 applications from all over Estonia totaling around €2.3 million. At the moment, we are processing the documents that have been sent in, and we will know how many qualify at the end of the month," said Sten-Patrick Kreek.

Kreek said the €1.2 million earmarked for the support measure was unlikely to be distributed between all those who applied for funding. Instead, he said it was important that cooperatives, which do receive the support, renovate their basements as well as possible.

Among other things, money could be requested for the construction of floors and the repair of entrances, as well as to purchase of ceiling support materials, fire-fighting equipment or generators. Kreek said, that even if additional state funds are not allocated for shelters, the Rescue Board will continue to advise housing associations that wish to improve their own basements.

"In addition to the analysis from TalTech, we also drew on Finnish and Swedish practices, as well as our own knowledge of shelters and Ukraine's experience in order to describe the sheltering sites," said Kreek.

Soon, shelters will be required for new, larger buildings

For some time now, the Ministry of the Interior and the Rescue Board have been discussing plans to formalize the requirement to have a shelter in law. The necessary regulation is expected to arrive along with a draft bill to make it compulsory for new, larger buildings to have shelters.

According to Priit Laaniste, the ministry will take its lead from regulations in Finland, which require all buildings that are 1,200 square meters or larger, to have shelters.

The draft presented by the interior ministry this summer also concerned existing buildings, which would have had to undergo significant renovation work in order to ensure they have shelters.

"However, in the end, we found that, it would, first of all, probably be very difficult to implement and, secondly to guarantee," explained Laaniste, who said that renovating a building in stages would be sufficient with no need for major reconstruction works.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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