Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 18, 2013

Fire department defends pancake-breakfast alert

Helicopter landing prompted emergency notice, Palo Alto chief says

by Sue Dremann

When 27,000 Palo Alto residents received an emergency alert last week 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 group aimed at fostering teenagers' well-being.

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 city's 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, with food prepared by Facebook chefs, was a success, Nickel said. More than 1,000 people attended, he said, including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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