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As with many countries across the world, France maintains an emergency population warning network called the “Réseau national d’alerte” (RNA). The system is inherited from the air-raid siren network that was developed before World War II and consists of about 4,500 electronic or electromechanical sirens placed all over France. The warning siren itself consists of a modulated sine wave going up and down (up to 380 Hz) during the first minute, and repeated three times.

Unknown to me when I moved to Paris, the system is tested on the first Wednesday of each month at midday. My first reaction on hearing the sirens was what the hell is happening here! But I soon discovered that the RNA runs monthly tests. A few months later I headed out to record the siren as it was tested.

It really is an erie soundscape. The sirens definitely have that World War II sound to them and it’s also interesting how, as the sirens call out, we hear the other elements of the city soundscape (birds, traffic etc) carry on as usual.

I have kind of gotten used to hearing this test and, although I don’t hear it every month (as I’m often working at this time), whenever I do I always stop and listen. I’ve often wondered what I would do if I heard the sirens ring out in a real emergency situation. But apparently I’m not alone, as a 2013 Ifop poll showed that 78% of those polled did not know what to do in case of natural or industrial disaster.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn (Creative Commons)