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Civil defence shelters in need of care and maintenance

The Finnish National Rescue Association is urging property owners to name a specific individual to take responsibility for the maintenance and inspection of emergency shelters on their premises.

While the law mandates the construction of civil defence shelters, it does not require a specific individual be named to take responsibility for upkeep and maintenance. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

Civil defence shelters can provide the protection they are designed to give only if regularly serviced and maintained. At present, this is not necessarily the case for many private facilities, and the Finnish National Rescue Association SPEK says that needs to change.

Finland has an extensive network of civil defence shelters intended to protect the population from military attack, collapsing buildings, ionising radiation and toxic substances.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, as of early 2020, Finland had 54,000 civil defence shelters with space for a total of 4.4 million people.

These include public shelters, often deep in the bedrock, and private reinforced concrete shelters. By law, any building with a floor area of at least 1,200 square metres that is used as a permanent dwelling or workplace or is otherwise permanently occupied is required to have a civil defence shelter. As a result, approximately 85 percent are private shelters in individual buildings.

Under normal circumstances, civil defence shelters in residential buildings are often used as storage spaces or for recreational purposes. However, it is required that shelters can be emptied and taken into use within 72 hours.

No one's job

Even though not required by law, the Finnish National Rescue Association SPEK is now urging property owners to formally name one individual to take responsibility for the condition of shelters and oversee maintenance and inspections.

Jari Pouta, a safety expert in civil defence at SPEK points out that current legislation does not require that any specific person be given this task.

"Housing companies and property owners should nominate a person to take care of these services. The shelter should be serviced annually," he says.

According to Pouta, these shelter caretakers could also direct and lead operations if and when the shelters are needed.

Miia Savilampi, a civil defence expert at the Uusimaa Rescue Association, states that the situation regarding these shelters has even been described as a "wild west" in respect to who carries practical responsibility.

The association points out that civil defence is only one part of preparedness. It would be good for citizens to be prepared to deal with various disruptions, such as long-term power outages, major accidents, or pollution of the water supply.

"These issues should also be reviewed in housing associations and workplaces from time to time," Savilampi says.

Ira Pasi, a former civil defence expert at SPEK and now a private specialist in the field, adds that the proposed job of taking responsibility for a shelter would by no means be an overwhelming task for anyone. Training is provided by regional rescue associations across the country.

According to Savilampi, demand for training related to civil defence has clearly increased recently due to the war in Ukraine.

Ira Pasi says the operation of ventilation equipment, seals and doors in particular should be checked during annual maintenance. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

Doors and seals

Pasi says that the most common deficiencies in shelters are the breakdown of seals over time and the poor condition of ventilation valves.

"Supplies may also have expired. For example, iodine tablets and batteries should be replaced with new ones from time to time," she advises.

In contrast, the basic structures, such as concrete and steel, generally withstand the tooth of time well.

According to Pasi, the condition of seals, the operation of the door and ventilation equipment should be checked during annual maintenance.

She says that shelters, especially those built after 1971, provide comprehensive protection against not only explosives and shrapnel, but also against toxic gases and radiation.

Many older shelters also have sand and activated charcoal filters that provide effective protection. Pasi stresses that for use as traditional "bomb shelters," the condition of seals or valves is not a decisive factor.