In the wake of a string of armed robberies in Palo Alto, residents are saying there's no such thing as too much information.
The city's emergency-alert system, AlertSCC, issues a recorded phone message, e-mail or text message regarding crises such as power outages and impending floods. Palo Alto police say they want to reserve the alert system for significant events so that people won't become complacent by receiving too many calls.
But residents of neighborhoods hit by the recent armed robberies argue the system was designed for notifications about dangerous suspects who could be lurking in the neighborhood after a violent crime.
The system is already used for non-emergencies. It alerted residents on Jan. 7 to street closures before the following day's parade downtown for Palo Alto High School athletes.
Around midnight following the parade, a robber pointed a gun at a woman and stole her purse in the driveway of her Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood home near Oregon Expressway.
"Neighbors seem not to have received any emergency notification that this was occurring or had occurred — and that an armed assailant was at large. And this, after years of work to institute an emergency alerting system in the first place," Karen White, president of the Duveneck/St. Francis Neighborhood Association, said.
But Police Chief Dennis Burns said the robber fled the area immediately after committing the crime.
"I think the community would have been upset with us if we had sent out a CANS Alert (now AlertSCC) given the hour of the incident. Also, since the suspect was no longer in the area there was no urgency to unnecessarily wake folks up," Burns wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.
Police also issued a press release regarding the robbery before the end of the midnight shift, and the Weekly posted it on its PaloAltoOnline website at 7:34 a.m. on Saturday morning, he said.
"We want to inform the public about what is going on in their neighborhood; however, the AlertSCC is something that we want to use for significant issues where there is an immediate life-safety issue or there is a significant disruption to an area. We are concerned that if we use the system too often we can desensitize the community members," he said.
He added that there is no additional cost to the city when sending a notification.
Police spokeswoman Lt. Sandra Brown on Thursday echoed Burns' sentiments that the system should not be over used.
"I want to wake you up at 3 in the morning if your neighborhood is on fire, not at 2:30 if a robbery occurs several blocks away," she said.
Brown has sent out 14 press releases related to the robberies, she said.
Heather Galanis, a longtime resident of Triple El, an enclave of 58 Eichler-style homes north of Oregon Expressway where a robbery occurred in December, said the number of incidents that rise to the level of an alert have been few over the years.
"In all of the years that I've lived here, we've only had something like that happen twice. I remember a couple of decades ago when a young man broke into a home, helicopters got up there with loud speakers. People came out of their homes. (Some residents) ran down the street and found him behind a bush," she said.
Galanis said she thinks the city should interview residents before saying they will become complacent.
"I'd like to see to see some proof of that," she said.
The Midtown neighborhood where Annette Glanckopf lives has also been hit by violent crime.
She said she has met twice with police about using AlertSCC for incidents and this week called for more discussion. Glanckopf is chair of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) emergency-preparedness committee.
She said Burns makes a good argument for not using the system to wake people in the middle of the night, but she doubts alerts about robberies would desensitize people.
"That type of incident is exactly what we want" the system to be activated for, she said.
Burns and Brown said the department is working on outreach and some technology tools and is exploring various social media. A community meeting is planned for Thursday, Jan. 20. More information is to follow.