Published On: July 2, 2021

Ed Persson, an Executive Assistant with the Commission, has turned his knowledge of Sweden’s preparedness measures into lessons for the UK in an emergency.

In 2018 the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency or MSB (Myndigheten för Samhällsskydd och Beredskap) released a revised version of a household preparedness guide titled ‘If crisis or war comes’ (Om krisen eller kriget kommer). This publication was sent to every household in Sweden at the request of the Swedish Government with MSB responsible for the content.

The original guide ‘If the war comes’ dates to the Second World War. It was prepared by the Swedish military to give household advice should Sweden lose its neutrality through invasion or war. The publication was upheld and issued to the public throughout the Cold War but removed in 1991 when it was considered outdated. The latest version (2018) came in response to the changing international political landscape and the increasing variety of sources of attack. (An English version of the publication can be found here.)

A societal focus

The new guide could perhaps be considered the hallmark of a centralised message showcasing well-developed plans, public information, guidance and advice. To start with, the guide clearly sets out why it has been published, noting that: ‘The purpose of this brochure is to help us become better prepared for everything from serious accidents, extreme weather and IT attacks, to military conflicts.’

It contextualises the responsibilities for national preparedness as follows: ‘Public authorities, county councils and regions, municipalities, companies and organisations are responsible for ensuring that society functions. However, everyone who lives in Sweden shares a collective responsibility for our country’s security and safety. When we are under threat, our willingness to help each other is one of our most important assets. If you are prepared, you are contributing to improving the ability of the country as a whole to cope with a major strain.’

The importance of communicating in such a way from a perspective of resilience and preparedness is that it reinforces centralised responsibilities in addition to reminding the public that they also have a part to play in a de-escalating or non-alarmist manner.

The guide emphasises the importance of household preparedness in national resilience. It asks the reader to consider what they would do if their normal everyday life was turned upside down. It cites climate change, external incidents and cyber-attacks as events which have a disruptive potential on normal routines. Considering the disruption Covid-19 has caused, global pandemics and influenza outbreaks might have also been included as risk factors despite the guide being released a year earlier.

The points provided, however, are risk agnostic enough that global, external and domestic disruptions can be included. Some examples of the considerations provided are: ‘The shops may run out of food and other goods; it is not possible to fill up your car; payment cards and cash machines are not working; mobile networks and the internet are not working…’ These scenarios which directly impact households could all be caused by global, external or domestic factors such as supply-chain disruptions, the breakdown of trade agreements or national power grid failure. Importantly, these scenarios place what could be considered as far-off threats, at least at the household level, as having very real and localised impacts. Hence, the reader is encouraged to prepare.

The roles and responsibilities for the reader’s emergency preparedness are reinforced and explained, noting that: ‘Your municipality is responsible for ensuring that services continue to function, even in the event of a societal emergency. This includes services such as care of the elderly, the water supply, the fire and rescue services and schools.’ In essence, societal welfare through essential services must be provided at the municipal level. Private individuals are reminded that they also have a responsibility to prepare correctly, enabling them ‘to cope with a difficult situation, regardless what has caused it’. Arguably, encouraging this level of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness can help households maintain some level of control in otherwise uncertain situations.

The purpose of encouraging an individual or household level of responsibility for preparedness is that, in the event of a societal emergency, ‘help will be provided first to those who need it most’ and the majority must be ‘prepared to cope on their own for some time’. Such a system also means that those responsible for critical lifeline services at the municipal level are able to concentrate resources on getting back to a functioning state more quickly than if they were stretching resources to cover the majority.

The approach also encourages neighbourliness or community resilience by acknowledging that private individuals and households have varying degrees of resources and capital available to prepare effectively. It reminds the reader that: ‘The better prepared you are, the greater opportunity you will also have to help others who do not have the same ability to cope.’ The activities that individuals are encouraged to take in preparedness are supported by a series of short, simple but well-considered checklists in the guide.

Total Defence

Beyond direct preparedness advice and guidance, the guide also provides information on how to respond to certain threats which seek to undermine Sweden’s resilience. Readers are encouraged to be on the lookout for false information or propaganda by critically assessing the source. Guidance and responsibilities are given for what to do in the event of a terror attack, for example.

Sweden operates a model of ‘Total Defence’ and the guide explains this, clearly differentiating the roles of both military and civil defence as well as explaining how and why citizens may be called upon to be involved during the threat of war or war. Resistance under attack is encouraged and is required according to the guide. Examples listed range from cyber-attacks to false information that seeks to undermine democracy, infrastructure sabotage, and acts of war.

The guide also explains what may occur in a heightened state of alert and how the public is expected to act. Guidance is given as to the various public warning systems with a clear breakdown of what generated sounds signal an important public announcement, and through what media channels official advice will be given. Furthermore, information is provided on what to do in the event that Sweden’s outdoor warning systems are activated and what signals an emergency alarm, an air-raid warning, or stand down.

Advice to households

The preparedness advice given concentrates on four key elements: food, water, warmth and communications. The guide acknowledges that individual needs may vary depending on whether one lives in an urban or rural environment and if one lives in a house or an apartment. The reader is encouraged to consider these checklists as general tips, to use what is appropriate for themselves and those around them, and to share and borrow resources from others.

The reader is encouraged to stock non-perishable food ‘that can be prepared quickly, requires little water or can be eaten without preparation’. Examples of these types of foodstuffs are provided. The importance of potable water, both for consumption and hygiene, is communicated with advice and checklists on what is needed to store and sanitise water. Advice is given on how to stay warm, particularly at cold times of the year by gathering together in one room, hanging blankets over the windows, covering the floor with rugs and building a den under a table to keep warm.

Readers are reminded of fire safety and the need for oxygen to circulate in the room. Information is provided on how to receive communications during serious incidents, how to communicate with others, and what backups might be needed such as spare batteries and power banks. Extra consideration is given to supplies of fuel, small amounts of cash, sanitary products, extra medicine supplies, and paper copies of important information such as insurance policies.

Relevance for the UK

While Sweden’s ‘Total Defence’ structure is different to the UK, guidance which informs the public of what could be required of them, what the responsibilities of municipalities or local governments are, and what responsibilities are held at the national level is information that is worth providing.

As it stands, there are multiple strands and sources of advice for the UK public with regards to emergency preparedness. However, the information needs to be sought out. The online Preparing for Emergencies resource provided by the Cabinet Office points in a variety of directions as to where to find information, from the Met Office’s Weather Ready guidance and Local Resilience Forums, to checking your risk of flooding from the Environment Agency. Further guidance can be found on Preparation and Planning for Emergencies which sets out the role of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and the Resilience Capabilities Programme. Additionally, multiple local government advice on household and emergency preparedness can be found through a simple Google search of the term ‘UK household emergency preparedness guides’.

Having multiple sources of information available online is all very well. Yet, we need to ask if this information could be better collated and, further still, if it is reaching the right people. According to research conducted by the British Red Cross, ‘A quarter (26%) of UK adults think they will be affected by a major emergency, but more than two thirds (70%) admit nobody in their household has taken steps to prepare.’ This would indicate that the preparedness advice that households need is not reaching them, or that the understanding behind household preparedness is not registering. The full report can be found here.

A household preparedness guide, compiled by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the UK’s equivalent to MSB, and distributed to households could be a way of connecting the public to the information they need. A hard copy version, as ‘If crisis or war comes’ is, would reduce the risk of this information being unavailable in power outages or network failures because access is restricted online.

Incidents such as the Scottish Police being accused of ‘Scaremongering’ for tweeting a recommendation to prepare ‘grab-and-go bags’ as part of a National Preparedness Week campaign in September 2019 might have signalled that public acceptance of preparedness information would be hard to come by. However, as we have witnessed in the nation’s response to Covid-19, households, communities, businesses, organisations, charities, etc, have engaged, for the most part, in responding to the challenges that the pandemic has presented. Could this signal that the appetite for preparedness information may have changed? Could it be time for a leaflet through the door?

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