Storm shows Estonia not ready for crises yet

Morning after the storm in Võru
Morning after the storm in Võru Source: Heini Heinlaid/ERR

Sunday's power outage in the south of Estonia showed that the state is not ready for crises yet and a major blackout knocks out sale of motor fuel, mobile communications and water supply.

The city of Võru lost power at around 5 p.m. on Sunday. Gasoline generators were started at the South Estonia Hospital as the ER and the surgical theater must never be left without power.

"We can supply power to most of the building when we start up our major backup generator. However, we need to call a guy to come and do it because it is an old tank engine. It is fine because intensive care equipment has batteries that can last for half an hour to an hour," said head of the hospital Arvi Vask.

The building soon had emergency lighting and full power in intensive care and surgical units. Small gasoline generators hold fuel for three and a half hours, while the major generator has enough for at least 12 hours. This means the hospital had to start thinking about where to get more fuel immediately.

"Gas stations were also offline. The closest operational filling station was 30 kilometers away in Saverna. Because I was in Elva at the time, I grabbed canisters from my house and brought fuel to the hospital, allowing us to keep things going," Vask said.

Water supply also affected

Luckily, the South Estonia Hospital has its own water supply. The Sunday power outage also took out the equipment of AS Võru Vesi. Head of the company Juri Gotmans said that the water utility resorted to its crisis plan and ordered generators from Elektrilevi and Tartu Vesi based on a previously agreed upon arrangement. The power was restored before the company could get its alternative system running.

"It takes us six to eight hours to get the system operational. But Võru Vesi is in the process of procuring its own generators as part of a European Union project. We will have that capacity in roughly four months' time, which is when it will take us between four and six hours to return to full capacity," Gotmans said.

Things went more smoothly in Valga. The city center kept power, meaning that water and sewage stayed operational. AS Valga Vesi head Jüri Teder said they had problems with their water intake on the edge of town that was without power. To put it simply, it was no longer possible to draw groundwater.

"Our water stocks started dwindling on Sunday evening. We thought the power would come back soon, but the water intake was without power this morning and still is. Colleagues from Tartu Veevärk lent us a generator that allowed us to start one well, and we can ensure more or less sufficient supply in the center of Valga. Childcare institutions and restaurants that are difficult to switch off are most numerous there," Teder said.

Many residents of Valga are still without water. Jüri Teder said the company recently simulated a similar situation, while they did not think there could be a shortage of generators in the area. "There's a lesson here, and we will buy a sufficient generator that we can afford now."

24 autonomous gas stations by 2020

Gas stations also require electricity. What about a gas station that could provide generators with power in the case of a blackout in Valga?

"We have agreed where such a gas station will be built, but we don't have one yet. The nearest place we can get gas in such a situation is Pikasilla," Teder said.

Pikasilla is located 40 kilometers from Valga. Supply of liquid fuel is a vital service in Estonia, meaning that retailers should make sure consumers have access to motor fuel during extended blackouts. Jako Reinaste, head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications' crisis regulation department, said that fuel sellers were told of more concrete requirements last year.

"This means that major gas station chains, of which there are eight in Estonia, should set up at least three gas stations that can remain operational during power outages by the end of 2020. This entails the ability to make transactions and support logistics. One such gas station should be located near Tallinn in Harju County," Reinaste explained.

This means Estonia should have a total of at least 24 autonomous filling stations by the end of next year, eight of which near the capital Tallinn. Reinaste said that the state wants to make sure there will not be major areas without one and that every city has at least one such station. "Fuel sellers want a return on their investment, meaning it is not in their interests to have several gas stations nearby."

No rules for data communication

Liquid fuel was not the only problematic field on Sunday. Head of the South Estonia Hospital Arvi Vask said loss of communications caused the most serious disruption. "We do not have our own communication system. We have relied on state and commercial mobile systems. This means we had to run up and down the stairs carrying messages."

Mobile communications systems are also a vital service in Estonia. Head of the network and infrastructure department of ISP Telia, Toivo Praakel, said that most of Telia's nodes have backup batteries or generators. The latter number few as they cost between ten and a hundred thousand euros.

"The batteries last for six hours in some places, four hours in others and, unfortunately, even less in yet others. They are picked based on how many clients we have in the area."

In Võru, problems appeared an hour and a half after the power went out. Toivo Praakel said that information did not move fast enough.

"In a situation where we don't know when power will be restored, we cannot plan for how often and where we need to recharge batteries or bring in additional generators."

Praakel added that voice telephony did not disappear altogether in many places but only grew weaker as several cell towers can provide coverage for a single area.

He added that people should only make necessary calls and prefer SMS messages during power outages so as not to overload the weakened network. Unlike fuel sellers, there are no minimum requirements in place for telecommunications providers.

Jako Reinaste said it is clear the state will not require service providers to install a generator at the foot of every single cell tower. It is also unrealistic to demand that everyone has internet access in a crisis situation, while the ability to make phone calls should be ensured.

"However, certain companies or providers of vital services also require data communication. We should have a map for the latter inside this year, which is when both sides will have a picture of the required investment volume," Reinaste said.

It will also be possible to move forward with introducing minimum mobile communications requirements then.

Tartu better prepared for crises

While Valga and Võru water utilities depend on mobile telephony in a crisis, Tartu Veevärk has its own backup system the exact nature of which the company will not disclose for security concerns. The utility is also prepared for power outages with the help of automatic backup generators that should ensure water for Estonia's second largest city.

"We will make a few minor investments in the near future to procure an operative fuel stockpile. Because what we're seeing now shows that structures through which the state should help people are not entirely ready yet, despite all the red tape involved," said Toomas Kapp, head of the Tartu water utility.

The University of Tartu Clinic has its own fuel supply and contracts in place should stockpiles run out. Member of the board Marek Seer added the hospital is also prepared for mobile phones falling silent, whereas its alternative communication system would allow it to contact other state institutions.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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