News

Fire department defends pancake-breakfast alert

Helicopter landing prompted emergency notice, chief says

When 27,000 Palo Alto residents received an emergency alert telling them about an upcoming fire department pancake breakfast, some questioned whether the alert system should be used to promote events.

The Palo Alto Fire Department sent the AlertSCC message on Friday, Oct. 11, about the next day's pancake breakfast in Rinconada Park, which raised money for Project Safety Net.

The text message read:

"AlertSCC: Palo Alto Firefighters will be hosting a Community Pancake Breakfast Saturday October 12th, please find us on Facebook and Twitter for more details."

A minute later, recorded phone messages went out.

Several residents voiced their disapproval on Palo Alto Online's Town Square:

"I was at a meeting when this occurred, and several phones rang. I opened mine thinking it was an emergency. If this continues, we will start ignoring the messages, and like the boy who called wolf, we won't know when there is a real emergency," a resident wrote.

"Maybe them pancakes are really, really good?" quipped another.

The issue has caused Fire Chief Eric Nickel to review procedures, he said.

"One of our concerns was that we were landing a helicopter at Walter Hays Elementary School in a residential neighborhood on a Saturday. We were concerned that we would get lots of calls to 911 that would jam up the lines. We thought that we would do the alert on Friday to not wake people up," he said.

In the past when helicopters or fire trucks were used for events or trainings and alerts did not go out, 911 lines did get jammed by curious callers, he said. But this time, there were no calls to 911 asking about the helicopter.

"It's the first time that has occurred," he said.

The 27,000 notifications generated 13 complaints, he said.

Nickel said he understands why people thought the message was an inappropriate use of the system. If he had it to do over again, the alert would state in the opening sentence that a helicopter would be landing at the site, he said.

Some residents said the alert came across as a promotional announcement, but Nickel pointed out there was nothing wrong with sending it out, since there are two separate databases for AlertSCC: one for local events and emergencies, and a separate "reverse 911" database that is restricted to emergencies only. But messages from both databases arrive with the header AlertSCC, making it impossible for people to distinguish between the two.

The citys' public-safety leaders and the City Manager's office have reviewed the procedure.

"We have learned there are other technologies to use for event notification, such as Facebook, Twitter and Nixel. We had that conversation, and if we did this tomorrow, we would use those other community-communications technologies," Nickel said.

The pancake breakfast was a success, Nickel said. More than 1,000 people attended to consume food prepared by Facebook chefs, he said.

Comments

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2013 at 8:31 am

I don't get it. Why would an emergency helicopter landing generate 911 calls? I would imagine in a real emergency, 911 would have sent the helicopter so why call them? Curiosity yes, but hardly worth calling 911 just to find out what's going on. After all, who calls 911 when they see police activity?

This doesn't ring true.


Posted by Richard, a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2013 at 9:37 am

Sounds like someone is trying to cover their tracks for a misuse of an "emergency" system. Chief Nickel is off to a good start with coverups instead of admitting it was wrong.


Posted by member, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2013 at 9:53 am

I agree with Resident and with Richard.


Posted by Dennis, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:20 am

The headline says "defends" but when Nickle is quoted he says he would change the wording or use something like facebook instead. This does not sound like a defense to me.

There is an explanation of the thinking when the message went out. OK. Did the headline writer fail to read or comprehend the rest of the story?

p.s. I am not related to or know anyone in fire department or even city govt. I was annoyed by the message but I think the steps being taken are appropriate and not deserving of "coverup".


Posted by Marlene, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:27 am

Much to do about nothing, as is usual in Palo Alto. I understood the message to be primarily about a helicopter landing.


Posted by wbp, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:27 am

wbp is a registered user.

I agree with Richard, I think this was a misuse of the emergency notification system. This was not an emergency. I also doubt the statistics on how many calls to 911 they get when a helicopter lands somewhere.


Posted by Enough said., a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:37 am

I think PAFD just acknowledged they should do this differently next time. Enough said. Let's move on.


Posted by Eric, a resident of Professorville
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:39 am

I liked the alert. I like living in a town that feels small enough that a pancake breakfast is news. It's enough for me if they say they'll use FB next time.


Posted by annoyed, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

The "alert" messages were quite disruptive at our home. It felt like an unreasonable use of this important message system. Reading this article, I realize that I should have made a more formal complaint to make sure the Chief hears the concerns of what came across as an advertisement.


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:53 am

Another complaint from here.

As for not waking people up, some of us who've had our sleep scheduled regularly messed up been by the NIGHTLY midnight and later helicopter and plane flights were still sleeping -- or trying to -- at 9AM.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:08 am

When I saw the message I immediately deleted it, as it wasn't something in which I was interested. I didn't even realize that it was from the County Alert email service until there were articles about it in various papers, including the Sacramento Bee.

I agree that this was not the best use of this service, but it's not the first time that it has been used somewhat irresponsibly, in my opinion.

The Fire Chief's claim that he was trying to avert 911 calls about a helicopter landing in Palo Alto really is lame. Has there ever been a helicopter landing in Palo Alto in the past that has generated 911 calls? Probably not. So, how does he, having only recently arrived in town, come to this conclusion?

Twitter, Facebook, and the normal email lists, and PSAs in the local media should be more than enough outreach for these sorts of activities. Hopefully this fellow will not use the SCCAlert system for his fundraisers in the future.


Posted by No No, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:11 am

Shouldn't try to justify it. just apologize for it,


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:12 am

Does anyone know how to lodge a complaint about all the late-night early-morning flights?

You can set your watch by them: midnight, 12:30AM, 1:30AM.

Very loud and very annoying where I live.


Posted by Helicopter, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:28 am

If the purpose was to alert about the helicopter flight, why didn't the phone message explicitly say anything about this flight? The email message did though, although the helicopter flight info was buried in the message.

It was clear from the phone message and the email message that the primary purpose was to promote the pancake breakfast benefiting Project Safety Net. A laudable goal, but not an emergency.


Posted by What The ****, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

If Palo Alto wants a way to communicate with the city via text and phone, they should have an event line and as residents we should be able to sign up and choose what types of events we'd like to be alerted about.
Come on PA - Get it together. An emergency alert system is no place for advertisements.

On a side note:
I didn't get this alert!! I feel left out :(
I wanted to go... sniffle sniffle - I love pancakes and so do my kids *darn


Posted by Crescent Park Mom, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

I loved getting notification about the pancake breakfast and I don't have a problem with them using the alert system. It was a short and sweet message. I'm sure more folks were happy to receive it than not receive it. We don't need to create ANOTHER means for communicating.


Posted by mutti, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I guess I'm one of the 10 people who complained to the city. It's a little unnerving when all 4 phones in the household start to ring at the same time, just as we're trying to get out the door to work. I heard 'pancake breakfast' and hung up. Later in communication with the city they said it was to warn people about the helicopter landing at Rinconada. Oops -- never heard that. And I live a block from Mitchell Park. Am I going to hear a helicopter at Rinconada? I don't think so. This is bordering on 'the boy who cried wolf.' That's my main objection. If it's used for non-emergency calls many of us won't bother to answer it. Then a real emergency gets ignored. How about a different system with separate sign-up for 'city news?'


Posted by Terry, a resident of Southgate
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I agree with Richard.


Posted by Europe, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Do you know what time it was in Europe when I got this "emergency" call?


Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I agree with Richard, a little ___ covering going on here. I think the Fire Chief got the meaning of emergency confused. I seem to remember a story when I was kid about a wolf...


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I removed myself from this "emergency" alert system because the repeated abuses. Next time I'll call 911 when something really happens.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 3:25 pm

I am fine with the pancake alert ... unless it happens chronically it is not a problem.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm

As of this hour (15:47 on Wednesday), there is a link up on the Drudgereport
pointing to a SF CBS TV web-site:

Web Link

Guess when you pay a Fire Chief as much as this one, he's got to do something to justify his salary.


Posted by Defenseless, a resident of Professorville
on Oct 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm

There is no defense of this: apologies and penalties are what is needed here.


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm

In my opinion the Fire Chief's excuse and statement are lame at best. If he was honestly trying to calm people as to why a helicopter was going to be in the area the Emergency Alert should have stated something about a helicopter at a minimum.
I'd have more respect for FD managers if they just admitted they made a huge mistake. Instead of trying a 3rd grade cover up.


Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Oct 16, 2013 at 5:24 pm

The real question is why did it take the weekly 5 days to do a story. I guess they were caught between a rock and a hard place. They were hoping the story would blow over so they would not have to do a story that would embarrass their buddies in fre department -- when it did not they were forced to do the story otherwise their journalistic integrity ( I say suppressing a guffaw) would be compromised. Tough trying to be an " independent " news source and protect your buddies at the same time


Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Ha, right when I answered the phone and heard the first sentence, I hung up and thought, "Oh, the Palo Altans are going to complain about this." Sure enough, here we are. I agree the "helicopter notification" is lame, and I didn't even hear it because I hung up. If he really wanted to notify people about helicopters, the message should have been called at 12:30, as the helicopter appeared around 1:00.

I actually brought my family to the Pancake Breakfast (I'd already read about it) and it was quite a fun time (for elementary kids). The DJ was funny and the exhibits were interesting, and included PA SWAT team gear, CPR dummies for practice, trailer with kiddie lecture about fire safety, police motorcycle to sit on, police car to climb into, fire truck to climb into, a demo of firemen rescuing a dummy from a car wreck, helicopter landing, etc. My only complaint is that they starting rounding up people to wait for the show 45 minutes prior to the show.

The phone call/email was overkill. Just a non-invasive email to our PA residents would be a better idea for publicizing.


Posted by Now I see, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Yeah, I was surprised by the call, too. But now...the Chief's point about informing the public to avoid overwhelming 911 with concerned callers makes absolute sense to me.

I happened to drive by right when all the demonstrations were happening - LifeFlight, crashed car/jaws-of-life demo and when multiple fire & emergency vehicles (with lights flashing, firefighters in full regalia) were all clustered near each other at Embarcadero & Newell. Very visible. Cars slowed around the scene (appropriately) and groups of curious pedestrians were evident on the other side of Embarcadero. I now understand why an alert was necessary. Last year the breakfast was held at Stanford's firehouse - not on a main thoroughfare.

To PAFD and Facebook - thank you so much for your kind and incredible support of Project Safety Net - for delighting Palo Alto children and parents with your demonstrations and tasty food - for the critical service you provide for our community every day.

I am glad 911 was not overwhelmed - I can see how it easily could have been, had the public not been made aware. If you're guilty of one thing - it's for being too cheery and welcoming on the alert. It threw alot of us off, apparently... You'll have to "fix that" next year - warning first. (hint hint for 2014). THANK YOU!!!


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm

OK, Eric Nickel abused resources intrusted to him, and in my opinion should be dismissed.

But the real question is, where do we go in Palo Alto to complain about deficient and inappropriate behavior of Palo Alto employees. It has been my experience that there is a cover your ass culture in city services, and one official laughed at me when I suggested Palo Alto should adopt a quality improvement program.


Posted by Ken, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Yes, was out of town and got a text and a voice mail from the "emergency system". Pancakes are not an emergency. That was advertising. It's SPAM.


Posted by Bon Qui Qui 420, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Oh for the love of Pete! Do you people realize that if you received the alert -- you SIGNED UP for it on the AlertSCC website? The emergency alert system is different and frankly, I'm glad we don't get many calls from that system. How was this call any different from the callout the school district sent asking parents to fill out a survey? And by the way, to the person with four phones - isn't having four phones receiving a message at the same time somewhat of a high class problem? Really? The federal government can't get its act together and the alert is your biggest worry?Get over yourselves!


Posted by Obviously, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2013 at 9:01 am

"Pancakes are not an emergency".
Obviously Ken has never had to satisfy the cravings of a pregnant wife. ;-)


Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 17, 2013 at 11:05 am

The fire chief should be dismissed? Get real! It was a minor disruption, no worse than someone honking their horn. Actually, someone honking their horn for no emergency situation is more bothersome to me. Fortunately, Palo Altans know better than to honk their horns when not necessary.

As far as us signing up for the AlertSCC, the implication was that we would receive only emergency calls. But "emergency" is open to interpretation. A missing person isn't considered an emergency by some. We don't receive many AlertSCCs, so if it's a call where the public can help others, it's worthwhile.

It's the sales calls which kill me.


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 17, 2013 at 11:42 am

If they're going to warn us about every helicopter and plane, be prepared to be woken up at midnight, 12:30 AM, 1:30 AM, etc.

The excuse is totally bogus.


Posted by Just a Dad, a resident of Community Center
on Oct 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm


"We have learned there are other technologies to use for event notification, such as Facebook, Twitter...." Nickel said.

Hey everyone, the Palo Alto Fire Department has just discovered the existence of Facebook and Twitter! Let's all welcome to the PAFD to 2008.


Posted by Weiping, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Here to voice my complaint. The emergency line has been abused.


Posted by False Alarm, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2013 at 3:15 pm

If the alert was really about the helicopter landing, then a notice of the helicopter landing would have been the first thing mentioned in the alert.


Posted by Oh Well, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Kinda funny how no city council members bothered to respond to this incident. Kinda sad that the city manager (who authorizes use of the Alert SCC Emergency messages) chose to let the new Fire Chief fend for himself. Guess this speaks volumes about the city manager and his lack of integrity and inability to exert any professional management skills. After promoting the recent hiring of numerous senior management positions to promote efficiency (including multiple communication positions), the city manager has shown that he would rather let his employees hang in the wind while he shamefully hides, accepts no responsibility, and acknowledges nothing. What a pity!


Posted by Peet, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 17, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Using the Emergency Alert system to invite people to a pancake breakfast was just plain stupid, period. I saw the helicopter landing as I drove by Walter Hayes. I had no idea why a medical helicopter would land there, being so close to Stanford hospital, and then I remember the Emergency Alert. That was irresponsible, and costly. There is no way the PAFD sold enough pan cakes to pay for the simple hourly cost of fuel for that helicopter, let alone the hourly maintenance and crew costs, and don't forget the cost of the police needed to block off Embarcadero for the stunt, no way, this had to be a money loosing 'event', when the real cost shouldered by tax payers is considered. PAFD abuses the Emergency Alert system, pisses away probably thousands of dollars in helicopter fees (yes, they are very expensive to operate) for what? a PR stunt fail? Well done, some great community building there.


Posted by Sally, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm

This is so sad that people are so disconnected from their community. Palo Alto Fire Dept. really just wanted people to come out and enjoy a great day. They try to do something nice like raise money for a cause that is trying to save kids from completing suicide and you are complaining about a phone call? Really??


Posted by Big picture, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2013 at 8:48 am

Thanks Sally - I'm with you - and so are thousands of other Palo Altans who participated and are able to keep perspective on this.

The demonstration scene was visible & worthy of letting the public know (to not be alarmed, cause traffic problems or inundate 911). The alert - as delivered - sounded more like an ad, less like an alert. A momentary incident & very forgivable offense in my book - especially given the big picture (and the Chief's acknowledgement).

Borrowing from your words: It IS sad that a few vocal people seem so disconnected from the good that is so evident in their own community. The PA Fire Dept. - who serve us every day - did something incredible last Saturday. They created a welcoming and wonderful event for families while simultaneously raising awareness and money for an extremely important cause - suicide prevention.

Community connections protect life as well as make life enjoyable. I'm grateful to the PAFD for recognizing that and bringing us together on a beautiful Saturday morning.

More maple syrup, Palo Alto - fewer sour grapes!


Posted by Josh, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

This was nothing more than an advertisement that the Fire Dept. was doing a pancake breakfast. Helicopters are in Palo Alto every now and then lifting heavy items on top of buildings. I don't see a alert notice for them. Waste of taxpayer money!


Posted by Big picture, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2013 at 10:31 am

@ Josh:
Agree with you that the message came off as an ad. Acknowledged and apologized for. And in the big picture - worthy of forgiveness.

But this scene was far far more than any old helicopter landing. It was worthy of notifying the public in advance - for public safety reasons.

Message should have been better crafted to inform the public not to worry.

Big picture? There was huge public benefit - for all - even for those who disapprove. Shaping up to be another great weekend in Palo Alto. Have a good one!





Posted by David, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

Much to do about nothing. I can't believe how much people are getting their panties in a wad. If the city had not sent out the alert, you same bunch of cry babies would have complained about the helicopter noise and lit up the 9-1-1 phone boards for Palo Alto and CHP. There is no pleasing some people. Damed if you do, damed if you don't. Bravo to PAFD and PAPD for this great event to allow its citizens to have a glimps of the wide range of duties their personnel perform on a regular basis.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

I received the Alert and as soon as pancake breakfast appeared I switched off.

If I had seen the scene I would still have been alarmed because what I saw had not prepared me for anything of the scale it was reported to have been.
The alert did not even mention where the breakfast was meant to have been held. It did not warn me about anything.

If they had wanted to warn us, it should have mentioned the place and the demonstration scenario, not the breakfast.

I will give them the benefit of the doubt. But if the boy calls wolf again...


Posted by Nana, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 18, 2013 at 11:59 am

I very much agree with Big Picture and Sally. We went to the PAFD event at Riconada Park because of the phone call -- I listened to the phone message twice to hear all the details.

The display and explanation of the skills of the Firemen and Paramedics was awesome. We've lived in Palo Alto 40 years and have never seen a Life Flight helicopter land in a park.

Life Flight helicopters are what you are hearing flying over in the night --they are on their way from and to Stanford Hospital with seriously injured people, or emergencies, or donated organs for life-saving procedures. We should all consider ourselves lucky to have such services available to us if ever needed.

The PALO ALTO FIRE DEPT did a very fine job at Saturday's fundraiser for Project Hope, community event and demonstration!

Here's Big picture's wise words again to keep this event in perspective!
"Thanks Sally - I'm with you - and so are thousands of other Palo Altans who participated and are able to keep perspective on this.

The demonstration scene was visible & worthy of letting the public know (to not be alarmed, cause traffic problems or inundate 911). The alert - as delivered - sounded more like an ad, less like an alert. A momentary incident & very forgivable offense in my book - especially given the big picture (and the Chief's acknowledgement).

Borrowing from your words: It IS sad that a few vocal people seem so disconnected from the good that is so evident in their own community. The PA Fire Dept. - who serve us every day - did something incredible last Saturday. They created a welcoming and wonderful event for families while simultaneously raising awareness and money for an extremely important cause - suicide prevention.

Community connections protect life as well as make life enjoyable. I'm grateful to the PAFD for recognizing that and bringing us together on a beautiful Saturday morning."


Posted by Bruce Li, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Callers have dialed 911 to report barking dogs and to report their children refuse to go to school so a 911 call for a helicopter landing in a residential neighborhood would not be a surprise at all!


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