Alarming Netherlands

As I write this post, at mid-day central European time on the first Monday of the month, sirens will be sounding across the Netherlands. At this equivalent time in August, I was in Leiden with my family when this happened…

Video taken by my daughter

Having grown up in the Cold War, the sound was a little alarming. Luckily, despite the city being very quiet (in terms of people, at least), thanks to COVID-19, there was a lady passing us on her bike (of course) who let us know that this was a standard test siren that happens at 12:00 on the first Monday of each month. Here is another YouTube video with the siren in full.

Whether it was because of growing up in the Cold War or often hearing the air-attack warning on my favourite song, Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (see also my post on Welcome To The PleasureDome), or just my natural academic instinct, I don’t know, but I wanted to find out more about this drill – particularly as the Cold War, at least in theory, is meant to be something of the past in Europe. Perhaps it was something more to do with alerts about potential flooding, I thought. So the investigation began.

A quick Google search brought up this information.

All over the Netherlands, the public warning sirens are tested at exactly 12.00 noon on the first Monday of every month. The siren sounds for 1 minute and 26 seconds without interruption. This is a test signal so there is nothing to worry about. The sirens are never tested on a national or religious holiday or Remembrance Day, even if they fall on the first Monday in the month.

Helpful. But now I had a new mystery to get to the bottom of. Why is the siren 1 minute and 26 seconds long? At the bottom of the above page, there was a link to how to ask questions. I followed this and found the Twitter service so tried it.

I got a quick response and was told it was a good question, and was asked that I pass on my contact details so that my question could be passed on to the Ministry of Justice and Security and that they could contact me. I did this, somewhat amazed at how seriously they were taking my query. A couple of days later, I got a response from someone at the Ministry. It didn’t fully answer my question, but helped sum up why we find Dutch people so cool.

I hope you enjoyed your stay in the Netherlands. The test based on a monthly routine (every first Monday of the new month sounding for exactly 1 min and 26sec), is meant that citizens realise it is a test. When the signal lasts longer, people realise something bloody serious happens. Even when this happens during the monthly test.

Coming from my Cold War background and the idea of the ‘Four minute warning’, I was intrigued that if a country were attacking the Netherlands at around midday on the first Monday of the month you would have to wait for 1 minute and 27 seconds before knowing that something ‘bloody serious’ was happening. (Perhaps this can be a topic for a future novel for me)

Anyway, I was still interested in why the siren was 1 minute 26 seconds, rather than, say, 1 minute 30 seconds. I persisted and got another reply.

At the end of the 1990s, the Warning System was introduced with the test moment with the “siren” at the same time (every first Monday of the new month) and the same duration of the signal, for no special reason was chosen 1 minute/26 sec. People quickly got used to the test, partly because of the fixed monthly moment and the fixed duration. Let’s say that on the first following Monday of the new month, the “siren” lasts longer than the 1 minute/26 sec. everyone will immediately understand that there is no exercise.

So this siren doesn’t even date back to the Cold War, it’s more recent than that. This was a surprise. Maybe the Dutch know something, we don’t. Or maybe it is linked to the increased risk of flooding due to climate change.

Still not convinced that the 1:26 was not deliberate, I did a bit more digging and help from a friend, Dennis van Limbeek, led to the following information…

126. Holy Jewish meaning for the name of God, lucky numbers for Jews. 126 is 7 times “life” – one for each day of the week. In Hebrew, each letter also has a numerical value. There’s a system called gematria which looks for patterns/similarities in this. So, for example, the word for “life” in Hebrew is composed of two letters whose numerical value is 18. Hence, things like charitable donations, and, in this case, the purchase price of a house are given in multiples of 18 for good luck.

This makes sense… if the timing of 1:26 is deliberate. There could have been someone with this knowledge who made sure the siren was 1:26 long.

But, of course, the other possibility is that 1:26 is just how long the siren happened to last. There may be no particular meaning to the length at all. It just ended up being that. After all, given the infamy of the “Four minute warning” in the UK, surely Two Tribes (or at least one of the multitude of versions) should have been exactly 4:00 long (rather than the usual version being 3:56).

Whatever the real reason that the Dutch test siren being 1:26 long is, apparently it may be consigned to history as it’s meant to be phased out soon. But, I am also told by my Dutch friends that this plan has been around for a while, so there is doubt about whether the test really stop. In the meantime, if you’re in the Netherlands at 12:00 on the first Monday of the month, and you hear a siren, don’t be alarmed.

The featured image on this page was a photograph that I took in about the location when the siren started sounding during the visit to Leiden. The poem, on a wall of a building (there a number of these around the city) seems fitting.

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