Switzerland explained For Members

What does Swiss government want you to know about bomb shelters?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
What does Swiss government want you to know about bomb shelters?
Officers of the Swiss Civil defence show a model of composting toilet next to a kit for quickly assembling beds in a nuclear fallout shelter. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Also known as nuclear, raid, or fallout shelters, these underground bunkers are hidden from view, but they are hardly a secret — in fact, and Swiss authorities have recently issued new guidelines.


‘Strong interest in shelters’

Even though the threat of Russian attack has waned in the months since the war in Ukraine erupted, the Swiss are still showing “a strong interest in shelters”, according to the Federal Office for Civil Protection (FOCP).

For this reason, the government has recently issued new guidelines, covering all aspects of shelter life, for lack of a better term (See more below).

The shelters are an integral part of Swiss life — perhaps not as well-known as cheese or chocolate, but ubiquitous nevertheless.

If you live or have ever lived in a house in Switzerland built between the 1960s and late 1980s, you are likely familiar with nuclear bunkers located in the basement.


From 2012, however, only residential buildings with more than 38 apartments are required to have fallout shelters in their basements.

Residents of bulidings that don’t have those bunkers will have space, in case of emergency, in a communal bunker in their town. That's because Swiss law stipulates that each resident “should be guaranteed a shelter in the vicinity of her/his place of residence”.

Today, Switzerland has 370,000 communal shelters able to accommodate the entire population in case of need.

Though an enemy attack is unlikely, everyone in Switzerland should know where their nearest shelter is located. You can find this out at your commune of residence.

READ ALSO: What are Switzerland's nuclear bunkers and does each home need one?

A bit of history

During World War II, as neighbour Germany fought to take over Europe, the neutral Swiss started to dig underground bunkers — not only to conceal battle-ready troops and military equipment, but also to provide shelter for civilian population in case of attack.

When the war ended, with Switzerland unscathed, instead of dismantling the shelters, the ever-vigilant Swiss kept the bunkers intact because, while Germany was no longer a threat, the Soviet Union was (or at least was perceived as such).

But even after the Cold War ended in the 1990s and Switzerland started to decommission some of its military shelters, the ‘bunker mentality’ continued, persisting to this day.

In February 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine, the population’s interest in shelters was renewed.

And this brings us back to the present day.


When should you go to a shelter?

These bunkers are intended to protect the population during an armed conflict, especially one involving weapons of mass destruction.
They can also be used in case of natural or man-made disasters.

However, you should only go to the shelter (either in your home / building or community) by order of the authorities.

“The current situation in Ukraine does not justify” the use of shelters, according to FOCP .

How are shelters structured?

The Swiss don't do anything half-way

The shelters are equipped in a spartan manner to minimise costs, space requirements, and maintenance efforts, with the main focus on the protective effectiveness, FOCP said.

Each shelter’s floor, walls, and ceiling must be constructed from reinforced concrete and all the openings should be closed with blast-resistant covers. The bunker must also have an emergency exit or escape tunnel.

To ensure fresh air supply, the shelter is equipped with a ventilation system. "This includes the air intake, the explosion protection valve, the ventilation unit, and the gas filter, as well as the overpressure and explosion protection valve,” FOCP said.

An officer of the Swiss Civil defence of the canton of Geneva closes the door of a private concrete nuclear fallout shelter located underneath a residential building. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP


How should shelters be equipped?

They must be stocked with the supplies needed for an extended stay. They include cots, as well as sufficient supply of bottled water, medications, and non-perishable food for each occupant for at least two weeks.

Federal Office for National Economic Supply (FONES) has a list of recommended stockpiles.

What should you do if an order to shelter is given?

Hopefully, this will never happen, but it’s good to be prepared, just in case.

FOCP issued these instructions:

  • Prepare emergency gear (including personal documents)
  • Bring a battery-operated VHF radio and spare batteries
  • Prepare food (including special dietary and infant foods), as well as medicines
  • Close windows and doors, switch off electric devices, turn off gas mains, and extinguish open fires (fireplaces, candles)
    Inform and, if necessary, help building residents
  • Accommodate pets as well as possible and supply them with water and food
  • When the official order is issued, close blast door and blast-resistant covers, and turn on ventilation.

What about non-emergency use?

A shelter may be used for everyday purposes, for example as a storage room, workshop, office, or playroom.

However, “any such usage for purposes apart from civil protection must comply with regulations regarding workplace safety, electric installations, fire protection, etc., and no changes may be made to the protective shell (floor, walls, ceiling), the blast doors and blast-resistant covers, or the ventilation system,” FOCP said.

“Any projects for adaptations and changes to the structure or the technical protective installations must be approved by the authorities."

You can find out more about FOCP’s guidelines for shelters here.


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