The monthly warning siren in France: what does it mean?

Poll shows vast majority of people would do nothing if emergency alert sounded – instead of heading for shelter.

4 August 2020
The 4,500 sirens of the Réseau National d’Alerte are supposed to sound a warning in the event of a major incident in France.The 4,500 sirens of the Réseau National d’Alerte are supposed to sound a warning in the event of a major incident in France.
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Sirens sound on the first Wednesday of each month across France. Do you know what they mean?

The history behind the monthly sirens

Dating back to the Second World War, the 4,500 sirens of the Réseau National d’Alerte are supposed to sound a warning in the event of a major incident such as a cloud of toxic gas or nuclear accident or other imminent local catastrophe such as a dam-break.

Official advice from the Ministry of the Interior says that, on hearing the siren, people are supposed to know about likely local dangers and move to avoid being affected.

What to do when you hear the sirens

In most cases this means to head for a closed area or room without windows or air-conditioning, block up any gaps round doors and air vents and switch on the radio to hear France Inter, France Info or local stations. Downstream of a dam it could mean to head for the nearest high ground.

However, a study by Ifop showed that 78% of people would do nothing if they heard the siren.

Bookmark this page: emergency numbers in France and other helpful numbers 

Of the remaining 22%, one in three would lock themselves in and stay at home, one in five would seal all windows and doors, one in seven would turn on the radio to listen for information messages and one in four would set off another alarm. One in 25 would take an iodine capsule.

People are warned not to: stay inside a vehicle, go to get children from school (the school is charged with looking after its pupils), use the phone as the network should be left clear for rescue groups, remain near windows, light a flame or leave a shelter without official advice.

The two different sirens: one for testing, one for real-life situations

The alarm siren is different from the monthly reminder, which sounds for just one minute at noon on the first Wednesday of every month.

In a real alarm, it sounds for three sequences of one minute and 41 seconds in a rising and falling tone with a five second gap between each sequence. The end of the alert is a indicated by a 30-second siren sound. The government is also looking at ways of updating the system.

Sirens are already used in some communes to summon volunteer firefighters.

Read more: 7 French expressions you may hear when it's hot 

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