From civil protection to societal resilience in the Netherlands

By Corsmas L.P.M. Goemans

The Dutch have a long history of mitigating disasters. Due to the persistent threat of water, the Netherlands has always invested heavily in disaster prevention and a matching response capacity to known risks. They have successfully applied this approach and extensive experience to other types of threats. While there have been man-made accidents in the past decades, the negative effects of natural disasters or high numbers of casualties or victims remain rare.

The Dutch all-hazards crisis management approach is based on the Strategy for National Safety and Security of 2007. This approach includes measures taken and provisions made by public authorities, in cooperation with other organizations, aimed at maintaining national safety and security and based on a national risk assessment. (

National safety and security are considered at risk if one or more of the five distinguished vital interests are at risk due to (the threat of) an actual, or potential, disruption.

The government’s National Manual on Decision Making in Crisis Situations discerns five categories of vital interests: territorial security, economic security, ecological security, physical security and social and political stability. (

Based on the risks/threats – that nearly have no single ‘owner’ anymore -, scenarios have been developed and capacity analyses made to build on a more resilient society. A good example of the shift is the practice nowadays in Europe of Critical Infrastructure (CI) resilience instead of CI-protection. (

To face threats, risks, dependencies, and vulnerabilities that affect society all capacities that are within government, private business and citizens are needed, a sort of capacity triad, to build societal resilience instead of the government being monopolist in ‘protecting’ its citizens.

It is a way of working on resilience (disaster risk reduction) and risk management that has been main stream in the Netherlands for nearly a decade and has also become main stream in Europe.

In the European Union it is formalised in the directives e.g., regulations of the EU in, among other regulations, the Civil Protection Mechanism.

This Mechanism is the legal base for delivering assistance to each other when one or more of the 28 EU member and other participating states are overwhelmed. Although national authorities solely are responsible for the safety and security of their inhabitants, the European Commission also supports and complements the prevention and preparedness efforts of EU-states. And there is a special focus on areas where a joint EU approach is more effective than separate national actions. These include things to promote disaster resilience, and reinforcing early warning tools. (

This way of working on resilience and risk reduction in the Netherlands and European Union became main stream worldwide in March 2015 when it was agreed on by 187 countries with the UN “Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030”. (

Citizens and risk and crisis communication to support societal resilience

Within the capacity triad of government, private enterprises and citizens, citizens play an important role. Citizens’ trust in the government’s crisis management capacity is relatively high, and surveys indicate that citizens judge the probability of ever getting involved in a major disaster as low to very low. Each crisis and large-scale incident is evaluated and investigated intensely and the national safety & security or civil protection system is subject to constant reform and adaptation. These evaluations suggest that operational response efforts are usually timely and effective. Furthermore, emergency officers appear to be well trained, highly experienced and well-connected, and tend to work around impending reorganizations, recently introduced tools and new protocols.

The legislation in the Netherlands does not specify many formal obligations and responsibilities of citizens in protecting his/her life and property within the broader framework of civil security.

The Safety Regions Act of 2010 ( stipulates that citizens are obliged to provide government with all technical security-related information that may be essential to adequate crisis management preparation (WVR art 48, 1). When a crisis or disaster occurs, citizens are obliged to inform the local government of the affected area as soon as possible (WVR art 50, 1).

To strengthen the ‘self-help’-capacity and to raise awareness among citizens about risks and their own responsibilities in terms of risk reduction and coping with crisis situations and the responsibility of citizens  the national government launched a major communication campaign in 2007 to support the change from ‘protection’ to ‘resilience’. Development in new ways of communication and in society enables citizens to be more independent and more responsible for their own safety by timely and correct information.


Everybody in the Netherlands can find everything about the risks in the neighbourhood on postal code level on risk-map (

“Do I Flood”

However safe Dutch residents feel behind the dikes, it is not 100% safe. And OECD informed the Netherlands’ Cabinet in their report ‘Fit for the Future’ at the beginning of 2014 that citizens and businesses are only aware of the risk to a limited extent. ( This is why the evacuation module for major flooding – MEGO was started. And an awareness campaign about flood risk was launched on September 29, 2014 with the periodic test closure of the Maeslantkering storm surge barriers in the waterway to the port of Rotterdam. An app and a website ‘Do I Flood’ ( are available now for citizens so they are able to look up the high-water levels for their own homes and what to do if flooding should occur. This campaign was supported with a catchy song, which was a major hit in the Netherlands many years ago: ‘should I stay or should I go?’.


The Crisis-Communication-toolkit in The Netherlands for public warning consists of a mix of traditional and modern means.

ad hoc telephone team for FAQs: The telephone number 0800-1351 is open 24/7 when a crisis occurs and the government decides that citizens need information. The authority that requests the telephone service feeds the telephone team with answers to FAQ.

www.crisis.nlwebsite: A special website can be launched with extra server capacity to inform citizens on crisis situations. It can be requested for any type of crisis by the government authority responsible for the crisis response (local, regional or national). This authority feeds the website with information.

NL Alertcell broadcasting: Cell broadcasting notifies citizens of a threat in a specific area on their gsm. Cell Broadcast is a one-to-many geographically focused messaging service.

Disaster broadcasting: The local television and radio station have a role in broadcasting government provided information during emergencies. Citizens are informed that they have to tune in on the local radio channel when the alarms sound.

Local Alarm System: Every municipality has an alarm system (‘the sirens’). In recent years, crisis communication experts advocated more specific ways of communicating.

Local alarm systems and disaster broadcasting are perhaps already outdated systems. They were built in the last century on one scenario (world-wide-war) and with the publicly well know slogan ”If the siren goes, go inside, shelter and listen to your government on radio and TV what to do.”

The other ones are more coping with today’s needs of ‘all hazards’ and not only useful for ‘big disasters’ but also for more day-to-day ‘emergencies’. Here you also can notice the change from civil protection to societal resilience.

A few recent ciphers from the government of the Netherlands with its periodic ‘risk & crisis barometer’, indicating the societal trust in government and preferences on information sources during a crisis: (

The Dutch trust most – during a (big) disaster – the information sources on radio, TV and news sites on the internet. (N >15 years age=900, June 2015)

Picture1(Color-codes: Red: No trust at all; Orange: Not so much trust; Light green: Considerable trust; Dark green: Much trust)


NL-Alert was launched in November 2012 and is the latest addition to the CC-toolkit. NL-Alert allows the authorities to inform people in the direct vicinity of an emergency situation, by sending a text message to their cell phones. The message will describe the situation and advise people what to do at that very moment.

The most important aspect of this message is that it is not an SMS. The messages are sent by means of cell broadcasting (CB). Whereas SMS messages are sent point-to-point (meaning messages are individually sent to a known number), CB messages are sent point-to-area. This can be compared with a radio signal; every handset that is ‘listening’ to a certain CB channel and is within the coverage area of cells that are broadcasting a CB message, will receive this message. An enormous amount of mobile phones can be reached within a very short period of time in the case of network congestion. This is the main reason why NL-Alert uses CB. Furthermore, it is not necessary to register. So there are no privacy issues. This is an important aspect in order to achieve collaboration on a European level.

Although CB is specified in worldwide telecommunication standards, namely GSM (2G) , UMTS (3G) and LTE(4G), many devices on the European market were not set up (yet) to receive CB messages. Instructions, how to adjust the settings in the Netherlands, are provided on the website ( An increasing number of handhelds are now put on the market with an automatic adjustment; this number will increase over the years to come.

Between November 2012 and July 2015, the system has been used over a 60 times in actual emergency situations; in particular large fires, but also in case of a storm and the detonation of a bomb). Especially in the beginning this was a process of trial and error; nowadays the dissemination of an actual NL-Alert message goes without significant problems.

Through representative sampling, the direct reach of NL-Alert was measured in February 2013 at 1.4 million citizens. Last June this number has increased to 5.1 million. Until now NL-Alert messages were only sent out by the three Dutch operators on 2G and 3G. The direct reach will grow further when they are all – legally bound – to send out on 4G by the end of 2015.

NL-Alert is a very useful tool for warning the public. More and more countries are using public warning systems that sent messages to mobile phones. For instance, Lithuania, the USA, Japan and Israel use a CB system. Others use a SMS service, like Norway, Sweden and Australia. And some countries are in a pilot phase, like Belgium and the UK.

Whatever solution countries may chose, it should not matter where people are on the continent or elsewhere when it comes to public warning in emergency situations.

To come to an end.

The society is confronted with complex issues and risks, challenges await us. Unconventional challenges ask for unconventional solutions. Being able to think outside the box is only one requirement. Increasing thinking and striking power is another crucial requirement. This can only be done by combining governmental, public and private capacities. So we need to build in this modern society on a governmental-public-private hyper connectivity to tackle the threats and risks we are confronted with, to manage them. Alerting people when there is an incident in the way the Netherlands is doing it now is a building block for resilience and a nice result of ‘risk-management’ in the 21th century.

Corsmas L.P.M. Goemans (MSc; Bed) is working as senior policy advisor at the NCTV/Directorate Resilience of the Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice and is also UN National Focal Point DRR and Liaison National Platform DRR.