Palo Alto Fundraiser Alert Update

I have a follow-up to the post last week about the Palo Alto Fire Department’s use of a county-wide alerting system to inform residents about a pancake fundraiser. You may recall the alert prompted some in the community to question the appropriateness of using such an alerting system for non-emergency events.

Fire Chief Eric Nickel bore the brunt of the criticism about the alert but has graciously reached out to provide some important insights into what occurred.

I’ve had an interesting couple of days with this fascinating policy conversation about our use of the community alerting system. As a lifelong student, I think I can safety say I’ve earned a Master’s degree in the last few days – wow, who would have thought. Clearly this alert touched a nerve. One of the most fascinating observations I’ve had is how the media manipulates what started as a balanced news story:  and turned into something quite different.

Responding specifically to my point about the need for us to have a tiered notification system – with at least one tier for true emergencies and one for notifications of a more routine nature – built into our community alerting systems AS WELL AS our social media-based alerting systems, the chief replied:

[T]here are two systems, two databases and two uses under the umbrella of the [Santa Clara] County’s alert notification system. The notification that was sent [about the fundraiser] was not an emergency alert, but a local event notification. The database used was not the emergency alert database, but the event notification database. A community member would have had to sign up and opt-in to receive last week’s event notification. … The local event notification is the policy we followed and the database used.

From my perspective, one weakness of the County’s alert system is that it is difficult to differentiate between an event notification and an emergency alert. There has not been any public safety education on this system since I’ve been here, and other event notifications have been for community events that block roads. If I was a citizen who signed up some time ago, probably forgot about the system and read a notification that said Alert SCC (SCC stands for Santa Clara County) and immediately heard or read a statement that said fire or firefighters, I would assume it was an emergency alert.

I’ve spent many hours trying to explain this in a way that does not sound defensive, but educational. The media has been about 50/50 with accurate reporting (balance) vs. sensational reporting. The sensational reports typically placed the word “emergency” or phrase “emergency alert” in a prominent headline. But the bottom line, it wasn’t an emergency alert. …

From the beginning, we have been transparent and open with the details and information. It’s important for others to understand that the people who were part of vetting this out and drafting the message are some of the best and brightest in public safety communications and community marketing. One of our Police Lieutenants who suggested we use the notification system is speaking today at the Police Chiefs Conference in Philadelphia on Social Media communication and marketing. My first EFO paper was on marketing and public education and public relations with the community ( One of my other EFO papers was on using facebook and other social media as an important communication adjunct in the emergency operations center ( I’ve spoken twice on marketing and social media for the IAFC at FRI… . As part of the perspective, it’s also important to understand that our community is highly educated, very tech savvy and quick to complain and render their opinion. If this can happen to us, it can certainly happen to others.

Point well taken!!!

As I informed Chief Nickel, his case struck home with me because I regularly receive formal as well as social media based emergency alerts from a number of emergency management sources (federal, state, and a variety of local), and it is obvious to me that some folks who are controlling the messaging for some agencies are not recognizing a distinction between emergency alert notifications and (as in Palo Alto) event alert notifications. Some recent examples – congratulating the girls soccer team on a victory, wishing a cheerleading squad good luck in a state meet, even congratulating a local fire company on an open house event.

When someone signs up for emergency alerts – even on Twitter – expecting to be informed of impending weather events or other matters of an urgent nature, and are fed a steady diet of non-urgent event-type messages, the value of the emergency alerts can be lost. People will become conditioned to ignore the messages, or even unsubscribe from the messaging platform.

In conversing with Chief Nickel, one thing he said that really stuck out to me – was that so many in the media as well as in the fire and emergency services harshly condemned him and his agency for their use of their alerting system in this case. As someone who is pretty well versed in this arena, I have too come to the Chief’s defense here and say those who condemned him are way off base for two reasons. First, Palo Alto did use their event notification system that was separate and apart from the emergency notification system. It is two separate systems.

Second, and more importantly, we are moving into uncharted territory here in the digital age. It takes courage to explore the boundaries. For anyone to suggest that what Chief Nickel did was categorically wrong – or even that my suggestion about the need for a tiered system is categorically right – is ludicrous. Ten years from now… that may be another story, but right now in 2013 we are breaking new ground. There are no road maps. We try something, we reassess, we get better, and we move on.

In the mean time, those who control emergency alerting systems – and social media based emergency notification systems – need to understand what happened in Palo Alto and learn from it.

Thank you Chief Nickel for sharing your experience with us.


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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