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Sweden’s emergency shelters “back in fashion”

Sweden’s emergency shelters “back in fashion”

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Niklas Forsström

After a long period of obscurity, Sweden’s emergency shelters are back in the spotlight as the government proposes to spend over 18 million euro in next year’s budget on an upgrade, while also training the rescue services in an effort to strengthen the civil defence.

In the years between the end of the Cold War and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Hoarse  Fredrik” was the clearest reminder that the war could come here too. It is an emergency siren whose proper name is “Important message to the public”, and it is tested on the first Monday of each quarter. The nickname has been there from the start, but that is a different story.

On 24 February 2022, the feeling of security suddenly changed. It had already been weakened after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the aggressive Russian tone. The seemingly unthinkable had happened – war in Europe. Since then, the idea of war and preparedness has become increasingly relevant.

It is no longer unusual to see stories with titles like “This is what you need to have at home if the safety situation changes”.

Daily conversations might be about the need to have a transistor radio, cash at home, access to food, water and warm sleeping bags. Suddenly the largely forgotten emergency shelters became important. Today they serve as storage, gyms, bike storage and more. 

Carl-Oskar Bohlin

Carl-Oskar Bohlin, Sweden's Minister for Civil Defence.

The other day, the Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin, invited the media to tour the Katarinaberget emergency shelter and talk about the government’s civil defence measures. The shelter is in Södermalm in Stockholm and is the biggest in Sweden with space for 8,000 people. 

It has served as a garage for a long time, but now, along with Sweden’s other 65,000 emergency shelters, it is being renovated. 

“The access to emergency shelters and the ability for emergency services to react in a war situation is central to the protection of the civil population,” said the Ministry of Defence in a press release before the 2024 budget proposal.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine has often been directed at civil infrastructure and the access to emergency shelters has been very important for the resistance,” Carl-Oskar Bohlin told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper during the press conference. 

“The war has changed many things. We see a greater need for information to property owners and also notice a great deal of interest from them,” says Anders Johannesson, head of civil protection at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency MSB. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed people’s view of the need for emergency shelters and civil defence.

But even before that, the security situation had escalated, which prompted the previous government to present a proposal called “Strong protection for the civil population in times of heightened preparedness”, which the government office is currently working on. Emergency shelters are one of the three areas it addresses, and it also looks at access to other protected areas.

Sweden currently has enough emergency shelters to house around seven million people, and they are mainly situated in the 140 so-called emergency shelter populated areas – populated areas where available shelter is limited. 

“In 2010 there was talk of closing down all emergency shelters, but that never happened,” explains Anders Johannesson at MSB.

He says there is cross-border knowledge about emergency shelters and he is in touch with his Nordic neighbours. There are, however, different ways of organising and financing the shelters in different countries. 

Finland has 54,000 emergency shelters for a population of 5.5. million. Most are private ones in the vicinity of private properties and businesses and should be operational within 72 hours. The property owner is responsible for keeping a shelter and there is no state support. 

Norway has around 25,000 emergency shelters with space for 2.5 million people, out of a population of 5.5 million. Most of them are private and no new shelters have been built since 1998.

Checks have unveiled faults in upkeep and the knowledge of how to maintain emergency shelters has dwindled among civil defence personnel and the relevant construction companies and suppliers.

Sweden has not constructed new shelters since 2002. Before that year, the state-funded construction and maintenance. Many have been neglected, but new financial allocations are meant to refurbish shelters and train rescue services.  

If the proposals in the report “Strong protection for the civil population in times of heightened preparedness” are implemented, there will also be a gradual expansion of the number of emergency shelters. The report argues for the MSB to retain responsibility for the shelters, but that the job should be shared between several actors. 

Exactly how this will be organised and how much money will be allocated in the longer term remains unknown before the proposal ends in legislation passed by parliament. 

“We are in a waiting pattern,” says Anders Johannesson. MSB has, however, been allowed to hire five new employees with expertise in areas like emergency shelter control and construction engineering. As all emergency shelters must be assessed, there is a potential labour market both for those who renovate and those who carry out controls. 

How do I know where to go in an acute crisis? And what do I bring?

Where to go seems simple. I write my address into MSBs emergency shelter map and am told right away. Within a radius of 500 meters, there are 23 shelters to choose from. The shelters are basic.

There should be dry toilets, water containers, supports, concrete elements and water. I need to bring my own food, clothing, transistor radios and anything else I need. But what about the dog? Can it come?

No. Pets are not allowed in emergency shelters. There has been strong criticism of this including in an article written by researchers from the Swedish Defense University, who argue that pets should be included in total defence planning. Most dogs and their owners that can be seen every day, walking, playing and resting together would probably agree.

Guided tour of emergency shelter

The Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin, invited the media to tour the Katarinaberget emergency shelter and talk about the government’s civil defence measures. The shelter is in Södermalm in Stockholm and is the biggest in Sweden with space for 11,000 people. 


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