TALLINN - The Estonian parliament at the initiative of the parliamentary legal affairs committee discussed the Rescue Board's plan for civil protection as a matter of great national importance on Thursday.
Heljo Pikhof, chair of the parliamentary legal affairs committee, said in her presentation that civil protection in a military conflict is based on threat awareness, readiness to take cover and cooperation between the defense forces, allies and rescue.
Pikhof pointed out that over the last 30 years, no efforts have been made to maintain and develop a shelter system in Estonia, and this has been a mistake.
"The war in Ukraine shows that the bombings of residential buildings are not random misses, but that terrorizing and killing people has become one of Russia's military goals. We must commend our northern neighbors for their foresight in not allowing the years of peace to lull them to sleep. They have maintained and developed their own shelter system and infrastructure that can be used as a shelter when needed. Underground gyms, the subway -- all this can be used in an emergency. People can take shelter there from bombs, as has been done in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Regarding our investment decisions, we should likely start making sure that what is being built can be used to protect the lives of our people," she said.
According to Pikhof, in order for residents to cope with crises, a rapid threat notification system covering the entire densely populated area of Estonia and taking into account alternatives must be created; if necessary, readiness for large-scale evacuation must be planned and ensured; the improvement of shelters must be supported; the necessary shelters in larger cities must be marked; the Rescue Board's disaster rescue, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and first aid capabilities must be increased; the operational continuity of the rescue network in a crisis situation and the ability to receive international aid must be strengthened; local governments must be empowered to cope with crises and residents' awareness and preparedness must be increased.
According to the committee chair, it is necessary at the level of the law to resolve the issues related to shelter and evacuation and to initiate a discussion in the Riigikogu on the establishment of shelters and places for taking cover. She added that the division of tasks of institutions and local governments in the organization of civil protection, the organization of threat notification and the organization of risk and crisis communication need clarification.
"It is also important that volunteers can be involved in solving crises and that volunteers have the necessary rights, social guarantees, securities and, of course, skills," Pikhof said.
Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets said in his statement that Estonia has always set an example with its defense budget, but the country must also contribute more than before to the protection of its residents.
"The war has taught us a clear lesson about the importance of the population's readiness, defense possibilities, the will to defend and the ability to cope with crises," the minister said.
Laanemets said that Estonia's security and resilience must be broader and more versatile, because our aggressive neighbor does not only target military objects and natural disasters do not choose a time or place either, which is why evacuation, sheltering, the establishment of crisis reserves, threat notification and the development of other activities necessary for civil protection are of key importance for Estonia in the following years. The minister stressed that civil protection needs a long-term plan and funding and systematic and sustainable development requires an agreement across political parties.
According to the minister, for the emergency funding allocated to civil protection in March, it is planned to create a threat notification system, install 80 sirens in 16 major cities, organize drills and trainings for residents and local governments, mark places of shelter in big cities, create primary supplies for large-scale evacuations, support the crisis readiness of local governments and increase the operational continuity and supplies of Rescue Board teams.
"We are also developing guidelines for adapting private properties, such as basements, to suitable gathering places for people. In addition to all this, the plan is to allocate a total of six million euros for the next year for the involvement of internal security volunteers in broad-based national defense and for supporting communities and NGOs," Laanemets said.
The minister proposed to permanently and long-term ensure at least 0.5 percent of GDP, or nearly 140 million euros, for civil protection every year in the future. "Next to the military defense budget of nearly one billion euros, this would be an elementary investment to ensure that the safety, readiness and coping of the Estonian population is guaranteed," Laanemets said.
Rescue Board director general Kuno Tammearu said that the objective of shaping civil protection is that the Estonian people survive in all crises.
"Civil protection is an important complement to military national defense and the combined effect is what forms broad-based national defense. It is a synergy that arises and grows from common problems, goals, solutions and actions. As a result of the experience of the war in Ukraine, we see how important it is to protect the residents and equally their helpers," he said.
"By increasing people's readiness, we as a country can also cope better in civil crises, for example in the case of natural and man-made disasters. Our northern neighbor is a great example here, but unlike Finland, where civil protection has been dealt with for decades, and considering today's security situation, we are in a hurry. Therefore, we have to be clever, wise and as resource-efficient as possible in the establishment of our civil protection," he said.
According to Tammearu, people should ask themselves how they prepare for a crisis as an individual, community, company or local government. "Everyone has to think about how to manage without electricity, water, sewage, internet and communication, and where their shelter is," he added.
Tammearu added that according to the Rescue Board's surveys, 15 percent of the Estonian population is ready for crises, but 70 percent of the population could be ready, and the municipality and the state should support the remaining 30 percent, who due to their age or social situation cannot and are not able to establish crisis readiness. For this, people need to be made much more aware and their behavior should be changed with the help of training programs, campaigns and information material.
Tammearu said that for the 46 million euros allocated to enhance civil protection, the Rescue Board will build a foundation for civil protection and will start implementing higher priority solutions for people's safety.
"First of all, we consider threat notification to be important. People in danger are notified by SMS, radio or television, as well as by a siren," he said. "Together with local governments, we are establishing a network of sirens in 22 Estonian cities. By the end of the year, a location-based threat notification system will be completed. We are also developing the 'Be ready!' ('Ole valmis!') app created by the women's arm of the Kaitseliit (Defense League) volunteer corps, through which people can get information, advice and help to prepare for and behave in different situations. A 'Be ready!' leaflet will arrive in people's mailboxes with instructions on how to cope when essential services are down," he added.
The head of the Rescue Board also gave an overview of the design of shelters and evacuation places. He noted that a nationwide evacuation drill will be organized next year. Tammearu also stressed that civil protection must receive strategic goals and permanent funding.
Erkki Koort, head of the institute of internal security at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, said that around us there is a lot of uncertainty and processes that we cannot control,and this situation does not appear to be easing in the near future.
"We are living in a perfect storm -- the pandemic, Russia's military attack on Ukraine, migration, economic and energy instability, recently spiced up with attacks on infrastructure. Since we cannot control it and influence the sources of the processes, we must focus on preventing or mitigating the negative consequences," he said.
Koort noted that the field of internal security has never been systematically developed and financed for military crises. "The internal defense has always prepared for national defense in the next budget period," he said. "Estonia has talked a lot about the change in the security regime and accused other countries of ignoring security threats. In reality, we started dealing with several issues in Estonia only now. Whether it be cooling water for Narva's power plants or medium-range air defense," he said.
He stressed that it is always necessary to learn from the experience of previous crises, but at the same time we must avoid the trap of preparing for the previous war.
Koort stressed that the state must deal with civil protection itself and not wait for help from other countries. According to him, the individual, the local government as well as the Riigikogu have a role to play here. "It is possible to equip oneself very well in half a year. We can also help our relatives, friends and acquaintances. The next time you choose a gift, instead of useless and cheap Chinese junk, think of something that would really help a person get by, like a generator or an emergency kit," Koort said.
Koort said that work must also be done to ensure that local governments know how they can get a crisis reserve for their residents. Additionally, when processing drafts in the Riigikogu, the question whether the provisions of the draft will help people cope better in a crisis should be asked.