This is a test. Repeat: this is only a test.

February 7th, 2013

Every year the sirens catch me by surprise. They shouldn’t; it’s a well-established ritual that Switzerland tests the warning sirens of the civil defense system every year at 13:30 on the first Wednesday in February. But it seems to me that the public service announcements reminding people of the annual test are less prominent than they used to be, or maybe it’s just that way out in the village. Things are easy to miss out here. So yesterday as I was finishing up in the kitchen and the boys were playing a hockey video game (neither of them have school or Kindergarten Wednesday afternoons) I thought I heard sirens. I ignored it for a few minutes, thinking it was background noise on the video game – the stadium sounds incorporated in the game are full of sirens and horns when somebody scores a goal – and then I finally asked the boys to turn the volume off for a minute and there it was: the rolling ascending and descending tones of sirens. Then I looked at the calendar and the clock and remembered: testing the General Alarm.

We live a bit outside the village; the alarm is hard to hear out here but I did hear it. But they don’t take any chances out in the farming village, and part of the general alarm system out here involves a fire truck driving out to the more remote houses. They drove by, siren going, and turned around in my in-laws’ driveway and then, presumably, continued on to the other farm a little further down on the other side of the main road.

For us the testing lasted half an hour. In areas of the country with a number of dams – the Ticino, for example – there is then a second testing of the Water Emergency Sirens. These warning sirens make a different noise from the General Alarm. I’ve never heard them, because they’re not used where I am, but I understand it’s a series of 12 long tones.

Should the General Alarm sound at other than the expected time, residents should turn on the TV or radio for more information; you should also notify your neighbors to make sure they heard it. If the Water Alarm sounds unexpectedly – evacuate immediately.

Over the years I’ve known a few people who flat out hate the siren testing (and yes, they’re no fun when they wake the sleeping toddler from the afternoon nap, but it’s only once a year) but for me it’s one of those quirky, wonderful things I’ve come to love about the Alpine Fortress. I mean, they sent a fire truck out here, just for the six of us! You’ve got to love that just a little bit.

I found this YouTube video sample of what the siren testing sounds like around the Zürcher See (lake of Zürich). Turn your volume down if you’re at work, you might startle somebody!

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