Do Latvians know what to do in a crisis situation?

We have witnessed Russia's war in Ukraine for two years. Many have asked themselves – what would I do in this situation? As found by Latvian Radio, many have come to the conclusion that someone else would take care of it, meanwhile, the National Armed Forces say everyone must know how to protect themselves.

By January 1 this year, all municipalities had to develop a plan of action in the event of a military invasion or war. Individual municipalities, along with representatives of the National Armed Forces (NBS), have already drawn up a comprehensive defense plan in the event of a military invasion. The aim of such a plan is to meet the basic needs of the population in the administrative territory of the local government and ideally to support the national defense system or to assist the army.

In Vidzeme, the plan is ready in Sigulda, Valmiera, and Limbaži municipalities, but for Cēsis and Saulkrasti municipalities it is still being developed.

Latvian Radio asked Cēsis and Valmiera residents what they think – do local governments inform their residents enough about how to deal with crises?

“A lot of people don't know what to do in a crisis. It bothers me a lot. I think there's something the local government needs to work on there - look for some ways, maybe even organize some sort of movement, society, talk to people. But first, they need to know for themselves what to do.”

“I know everyone will now be talking about those bunkers, that the municipality doesn't think about them, just thinking about themselves. Are the taxpayers themselves willing to invest, say, 2 billion [euros] to build bunkers for at least half? That's the question!”

“I haven't seen that kind of campaign and that kind of public activity. The security in me comes from the fact that there are a lot of national guards in Cēsis, so I think in a crisis like that we would have a lot of people pointing out who and where and how to do things.”

“I think some know what to do, but others don't. There are booklets in municipalities [..], at least in our municipality.”

“Should inform maybe with some posters in public places so people know where, what and how.”

“There is likely no concrete plan for people, and I think municipalities are also inadequately explaining these issues to their residents.”

But do residents themselves feel ready for crises without waiting for help?

“No, we're not. Yes, we would rely [on others]…”

“I suppose I'd expect what is ordered. If no order followed, it would probably go further somewhere, away from populated areas.”

“Thanks to the National Guard, I know what to do, but not thanks to the local government. I have not seen any explanation from the municipality as a normal resident. It would certainly be appreciated if the municipality had any larger plan, say what assembly places are indicated, which is known to all residents, where instructions can be received.”

“Well, first of all, you have to turn on your TV or radio and listen to what's being said there.”

Most of the people addressed in Cēsis and Valmiera would wait for someone to tell them what to do, where to go, and how to react.

If you can't help, don't get in the way

Ričards Batarags, a civil-military liaison specialist at NBS Joint Staff, stressed that, first of all, everyone needs to know how to protect themselves and not needlessly endanger anyone:

“Whatever crisis it is, we take Jēkabpils's example – it was flooding. It's very important to listen to what the local government is saying at that point or what the State Fire and Rescue Service (VUGD) is saying at that point. As I recall, in the case of Jēkabpils, the head of the municipality himself personally asked residents on the radio and other information channels not to go to the place at risk needlessly, while those who can help with something were also specifically told what needs to be done.

“The first thing is – don't do what you don't need to do, and take care of yourself and your closest ones at first. What exactly, it depends on what has happened. Whether it's some kind of epidemic or flooding, or fires, or some kind of pollution, or it's a military threat, it determines the action. ”

As Batarags pointed out, we have a whole range of options for acquiring knowledge that will help overcome any threat ourselves and allow others to help as needed. Plus, it doesn't necessarily mean getting involved in the military. Batarags pointed out that non-governmental organizations, such as the Samaritans Association of Latvia or the Red Cross of Latvia, can also participate.

Batarags pointed out that everyone should know at least the very minimum to cope with the crisis themselves. The more incapacitated people there will be, the more resources they will need.

As a national problem, Batarags mentioned that in Latvia the civil protection service or civil protection forces are not defined in nature. He cited Switzerland as a good example, where young people who do not choose military service are obliged to go to learn civil protection. 

The specialist mentioned that, for example, during Covid time, when a lot of helping hands were needed, it turned out that the NBS and the National Guard were the only resources who could come to help.

Latvia keeps pace with its neighbors

While people are not sure whether local governments are prepared for crises, especially military threats, neighboring Lithuania says it will hold nearly 60 civil protection exercises there in three years to learn the response to a possible attack, hybrid or military threat, as well as widespread incident management.

NBS representative Batarags said Latvia is not far behind, as Latvia holds training in various sectors:

“With each municipality, there is a “Pilskalns” training once a year, which is specific training where we are learning to cooperate with the civil protection system at the regional level. Plus more training by the VUGD and the Emergency Medical Service (NMPD). We also have training in companies that are potential crisis solvers, such as Latvian Railways or other large companies involved in disaster prevention. They, too, undergo separate readiness training and the scenarios are played out accordingly.”

Lecturer: It's important to listen

This year, in five Latvian universities, students are presented with a digital course on civil protection. VUGD spokeswoman Sandra Vējiņa, as a guest lecturer, presents it to students at Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences in Valmiera and concluded after the first last term that people mostly have not even thought about these issues.

“The Civil Protection course is a foundation that every Latvian citizen should then know. More of that accent is put on what we can each do, how we can prepare if there are any concrete circumstances where we need to act. How can I protect myself, my family, whether I know where my local government's civil protection plan is located and whether I've looked into it, whether I've read and can understand it. The task of this course is also to show where this information can be found,“ Vējiņa said.

“I think most residents don't even want to go into these things, they're not even ready to take in that information. But as we see everyday, floods, hail, ice - these are also situations where we need to understand what and how we need to do.

“I will say this: the municipalities speak, but how much do we each want to hear? I would invite every citizen to look up this local government civil protection plan, just reread. I know that this seems daunting – it is [..] several hundred pages. Just calm, at some point when it's time to sit down, and review. Understand what the immediate threat that can be in the local government is and think about what I could do in a situation like this. If I had to leave my home, for example, where I would drive to, how would my family and I communicate if there were no phone calls working? Such elementary things that we don't even think about daily.”

The official booklet on what to do in the event of a crisis is available to download in English at this website.

The municipal civil protection plans are available here in Latvian only.

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