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July 28, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Improved neighborhood communications plan in the works Improved neighborhood communications plan in the works (July 28, 2004)

Mountain lion incidents spark residents, police to refine emergency notification system

by Sue Dremann

Prodded into action after a mountain lion roamed Palo Alto streets on May 17, neighborhood leaders, police and city officials are joining forces to improve emergency communications and ensure residents won't be up a tree the next time there's a lion in the neighborhood.

In light of the May 17 incident, and a spate of other recent big cat sightings, police plan to tap into neighborhood association e-mail lists to get the word out faster.

Neighborhood leaders want both a high-tech approach, and a plan in place to reach even the frailest members of the community during power outages, when electronic information-carrying systems won't function. Possibilities include the use of bullhorns, and even an old-fashioned knock on the door.

"An e-mail system can be a very efficient method of getting information out quickly to a great many people, who could then pass it on to others," said Doug Moran, president of the Barron Park Association.

Although message delivery is "near-instantaneous," Moran, a high-tech professional, cautioned that a lot depends on the mail servers on both ends.

"It can take up to a half-hour, occasionally more, for a message to be delivered. Typically, a 15-minute delivery gives you enough cushion."

Still, it could be a considerable improvement over a phone call alone.

On June 6, after two incidents of wild cat sightings in the Barron Park/Green Acres neighborhoods, police activated the phone calling system. But Moran said his neighborhood association found the results inadequate.

The Barron Park Association surveyed members about when they received the automated calls.

"We were concerned that the notifications came too late to be useful. We couldn't find anybody who got a message before 1:30 to 2 in the afternoon. By that time, the cat would've been up a tree and fast asleep," Moran said.

The speed by which the automated phone system can get the message out can be deceiving, said Atherton Police Chief Robert Brennan. Atherton's system serves 2,500 households, but many residents have multiple phone lines, so the actual load on the system can be up to 10,000 calls. The automated system keeps calling until it gets an answering machine or reaches a person. To make 100-percent contact, it can take the system "up to a week to get the information out there," he said.

Palo Alto's program can make up to 1,000 calls per hour, reaching the city's more than 26,000 housing units. At that rate, to make one call per household, the system would complete its rotation of attempted contacts in 26 hours. However, that estimate doesn't take into account the additional time it takes to go through multiple phone lines.

Following Brennan's experience in Atherton, the length of time to get the message out to every household and every phone could increase exponentially.

To bolster the pokiness of the phone system, a priority phone list is also being established. A select number of community and school groups would be notified when alerts take place. Neighborhood association and PTA representatives on those lists would then send messages out to residents on their e-mail list servers, said Sheryl Contois, technical coordinator for the Palo Alto Police Department.

In addition, Moran would like to see the e-mail notifications extend beyond emergencies. Residents could be informed if a rash of burglaries occurs in their neighborhood, for example; and they could be made aware of information that might help to prevent a crime: Last year, when a school district employee lost a master key to the schools, various neighborhood associations -- including Barron Park -- put out an e-mail to make people aware of any suspicious activity taking place near the schools, he said.

The city has bantered about developing a Web site similar to that of the city of San Jose, where crime events and dispatch logs are noted for each neighborhood and neighborhood policing priorities are targeted. The idea has been talked about for some time, and Moran wants it to come to the fore.

Web links on fire, police and utility sites that will provide up-to-the-minute information are expected to be operational within a couple of weeks, Contois said.

Electronically-generated communication systems are vulnerable to power outages; strategies for getting information out quickly may include the use of squad car and fire department loudspeakers, she added.

Moran wouldn't want to see reliance on bullhorns alone. Sound is very tricky -- it often doesn't reach residents' ears due to its absorption by hedges or deflection of structures, he said. And nature can sometimes defeat the best intentions. For instance, fire department bullhorns mounted under trucks were under water during the flood.

Residents with special needs should also be identified within the community and receive personal notification, Moran said. Some residents may not have e-mail, and the hearing-impaired may not hear a loudspeaker. Sometimes, a friendly knock on the door or a printed notice may be required to ensure everyone receives the message.

Staff writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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