Palo Alto Fire Chief Defends Sending Alert for Charity Pancake Event

By George Kiriyama and Lisa Fernandez
|  Wednesday, Oct 16, 2013  |  Updated 2:42 PM PDT
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A Northern California fire chief is defending his agency's use of a countywide emergency alert system to send residents information about a charity pancake breakfast. George Kiriyama reports.

A Northern California fire chief is defending his agency's use of a countywide emergency alert system to send residents information about a charity pancake breakfast. George Kiriyama reports.

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Palo Alto's fire chief is defending his agency's use of a countywide emergency alert system intended for floods, fires, earthquakes and major crimes to text residents information about a charity pancake breakfast.

The system, known as AlertSCC, sent messages to 27,000 people - by phone, text and email - in Northern California's Santa Clara County about Saturday's charity event at a park in Palo Alto.

The event was intended to raise money for a city effort to prevent teen suicides, and it ended up garnering $10,000. The breakfast - situated in the heart of high-tech Silicon Valley - drew high-profile guests including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife and Yahoo President and CEO Marissa Mayer and her son.

Erica Schroeder is questioning how she was alerted of the event: By emergency text, which also reminded residents to check out the fire department's Facebook page and Twitter account for details. And she wondered aloud if it wasn't overuse of the emergency system.

"It wasn't something I expected," she told NBC Bay Area.

The full text read:

"This is a message from the Palo Alto Fire Department. Palo Alto firefighters will be hosting a community pancake breakfast benefiting Project Safety Net this Saturday, Oct. 12, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rinconada Park, located at 777 Embarcadero Road. The event will include a simulated automobile rescue using the Jaws of Life and a live landing of Life Flight's helicopter. For additional information, please find us on Facebook and Twitter or visit Project Safety Net at www.psnpaloalto.com.

But for his part, Fire Chief Eric Nickel said he authorized the alert because he was concerned residents might inundate the city's emergency dispatch center with questions over why a  rescue simulation helicopter was landing in the center of town on an otherwise peaceful weekend morning. Also, he noted, when people sign up for the emergency system, there is a disclaimer that they also might get information about local events along with regional emergencies.

But if he had a do-over, Nickel told NBC Bay Area, next time he'd start the text with the part about the helicopter landing in a city park. And the part about the pancakes would go second.

"It wasn't our intention to scare anyone," he said Tuesday night. "This was a great community event."

Nickel did acknowledge that Palo Alto dispatchers didn't receive any 911 calls about the helicopter and that he's only heard about 10 complaints regarding using the alert system in this context.

Still, Schroeder said fire officials need to exercise better judgment when using technology. She and her husband received two phone calls, a text and an email about the event.

"If they use this too much, the value of the system goes down," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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