If you visit Prague at the right time, you may be treated to the confusing and frightening sounds of air raid sirens going off all over the city. The deafening warning sirens are a hold-over from a time when you couldn’t get safety updates from city authorities via Twitter. But the system is still very much in use today.
History of the Warning System
The emergency warning system was put in place, not just in Prague, but all of Czechoslovakia (when it was still Czechoslovakia) during World War II. The sirens aim to protect citizens by ensuring that they will be notified of imminent or incurred danger. At the time and during the Cold War, it was meant to warn citizens of activities that could endanger the lives of locals. Just little things like bombs, air raids, enemy gunfire on the streets, Nazi occupation, Russian invasions… you know the things that happen in a country when war is outside your door and not on TV.
Prague’s Emergency Sirens in Daily Life
Though seemingly archaic, especially in a time when you can live stream war footage like a Michael Bay movie, the Czech Republic still uses these emergency sirens. The sirens go off in the event of a major disaster like an earthquake, a chemical plant accident, or other life-threatening incident like war.
In Prague, the system is designed to be selective so that only people in affected areas are notified of the emergency. The sirens are typically followed by a message (in Czech) about the nature of the emergency. For instance, in 2002, major flooding triggered the use of the sirens to evacuate over 40,000 people from city center.
What does it sound like and when will you hear it?
The warning signal is a 140-second wailing tone that sounds exactly like it does in apocalyptic movies or Kansas when a tornado is coming. You can hear it here. The sirens are emitted from hundreds of speakers that are scattered throughout the city.
As a visitor (or recent expat), it may be disconcerting to hear this as you go about your day. So it’s helpful to know in advance that the system is tested at noon on the first Wednesday of every month. The test ends with a message informing you that the sirens are just a test.
What if you hear them at other times?
The emergency sirens can also be used to call firefighters. But in those cases the tone will be interrupted at 25 second intervals or will last for only a minute. In rare cases like these, the signal is not meant to warn citizens at all, but to mobilize the firefighters in the area.
Recently, I woke up just before 10 am to the sound of the sirens. Thinking a nuclear holocaust was finally upon us, I scoured the internet for any news. It turned out the sirens went off to commemorate the death of a firefighter. The incident was confusing for tourists and locals alike.
What to do if there is a real emergency
As with any situation, we look to other people to decide when to panic. If you happen to be visiting the romantic streets of Prague when a siren goes off, remain calm and try to get information about the emergency from Czechs that can translate the emergency message.
And little known fact: if things get really ugly, Prague also has underground bunkers all over the city from Vitkov Hill to Metro tunnels that can be sealed to protect the people inside in just a few minutes. The shelters, though certainly outdated, are still maintained in working condition just like the air raid sirens. The system is so large that it can hold half a million people.
Even if you don’t have to scuttle underground to avoid nuclear fallout, you can still enjoy a 1950s bomb shelter. Folimanka Bunker has free monthly tours, where you can see all the functional components of one of these shelters. Bunkr Parukářka in Zizkov currently houses a rock climbing gym and music club, so you can work on your fitness and party like the world is ending. And if they drop the big one while you’re in Prague, you’ll already be underground.