Tuesday 22 February 2022

Sirens on French Town Halls

Town halls in France generally have a civil defense siren fitted to their roof. Its purpose is to warn the population of danger. It isn't specific about what type of danger, but in a time of national emergency, town halls would be instructed to sound the siren. Citizens are then supposed to seek shelter and listen to the radio for instructions and further information.

Town hall, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The town hall in Preuilly sur Claise, with siren on the roof on the right.

Once a month, at midday on the first Sunday of the month, the siren in Preuilly sur Claise is tested. This has the double function of calling the volunteer fire officers in to the town hall for aperatifs. Occasionally it is used to call the fire officers to an unusually serious car accident or fire, but normally they are called to action by more modern means these days.

Town hall roof, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The roof of Charnizay town hall, with siren between two finials.

These sirens are the descendents of the Second World War air raid sirens, and the network was maintained and even augmented throughout the Cold War. Nowadays the expectation is that they are more to be used locally in the case of a natural disaster, a serious industrial accident, or a terrorist attack.

A survey conducted in 2013 revealed that 78% of the population didn't know what they were supposed to do in response to the sirens if they sounded. There is an existing network of somewhere between 2500 and 5000 civil defense sirens in France (I can't find a credible exact figure for the current number). The Minister for the Interior, the Defence Forces, Préfets and Mayors are authorised to activate them.

They are tested once a month for a minute and 41 seconds (it takes 20 seconds for them to reach full power, and 21 seconds to wind down, and it is estimated that it needs one minute to be sure everyone in town has heard it). Most places do it on the first Wednesday of the month.

If the siren does a repetition of three it means it is a real alert.

You are supposed to:

  • find shelter and stay there
  • turn off the heating, aircon and ventilation
  • turn on the radio or television and listen for announcements by the authorities
  • check social media for official announcements

You are supposed not to:

  • stay in your car
  • stand near windows or open them
  • fetch your children from school (they will be taken care of by their teachers)
  • light a flame or the gas
  • take a lift (elevator)
  • leave your place of shelter without authorisation
  • telephone all your friends and family, as the network must remain available for the emergency services

There is a specific alarm of two second blasts of a fog horn for two minutes to warn of the imminent breaching of a dam. You have just minutes to get to higher ground, an upper floor or on to a roof. 

The end of any alert is signaled by a continuous 30 second blast on the siren.

The sirens were used in Rouen and Nice as recently as 2019, when there was a fire at a petro-chemical factory and risk of flash flooding respectively.

The sirens have not been used for alerts to do with the Covid19 pandemic because the sirens are only used to alert the population to sudden and imminent danger. The system is not universally popular though, because it is difficult to manage without causing even more panic. In any case, France has until 2022 under a European Directive to introduce a telephonic disaster warning system.

Tour Saint Antoine, Loches, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The Tour Saint Antoine in Loches.

This network of sirens is not the earliest system installed in France for warning of disasters. From the Middle Ages onwards there was the tradition of 'sonner le tocsin'. A tocsin is a warning peel sounded on a bell in a tower erected or nominated by the civil authorities and used to sound the alarm whenever danger loomed and the population needed to come into the protection of the city or castle walls. The Tour Saint Antoine in Loches is a civil belltower that was erected in the 16th century to sound the tocsin. A tocsin is rung at an urgent, rapid and increasing speed from 90 to 120 beats per minute.



I recorded the video above on Sunday 6 February, but it nearly didn't happen. As I was waiting around in front the town hall for midday and, as I thought, the siren, Jacques, the chief volunteer fire officer in town pulled up and asked me what I was doing (not in an aggressive way, just curious). I told him and he said that the firemen are not gathering (for 'manoeuvres' as he called it...) on the first Sunday of the month due to Covid. We waited around a bit to see if the siren would go off anyway. It didn't look like it was going to, so he rang the person responsible who said oops, he had forgotten, and would have to run down there immediately. We joked about him still being in bed, but sure enough, after about 10 minutes, the siren blasted out. It is deafening if you are standing right by the town hall! And I got my recording. Thank you Jacques!


Colin and Elizabeth said...

Very Very outdated for the 21st century. Time and money wasted in my opinion. C

Carolyn said...

Susan, you've got pull!

I think more than one alert system should be used to try to reach everybody. We know of a town where emergency calls are routed through church phone trees, but there is no provision to inform non-churchgoers.

The other day my cell phone buzzed in a more assertive way than usual. It turned out to be a weather alert, the first one we'd ever received, and was repeated a few minutes later. We thought it was probably not meant for us but in fact the predicted snow squall and whiteout showed up soon.

Unfortunately my phone isn't always on and we live too far from a town to hear the fire siren.

Susan said...

Colin and Elizabeth: Well due to be updated this year.

Carolyn: LOL, it was very kind of Jacques to make it happen for me.

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