Choose Your Words Carefully

Using mass notification to communicate with your citizens in non-emergency situations requires a delicate balancing act between transparency and restraint. The Palo Alto Fire Department recently learned a lesson in choosing words more carefully for a non-emergency alert.

Emergency HelicopterOut of an abundance of caution, the Palo Alto Fire Department Chief decided to alert the county to an upcoming rescue simulation that would involve a helicopter landing in the middle of town. This simulation was to take place during a charity pancake breakfast. When crafting the alert message the Chief mentioned the pancake event first and the helicopter second. Unfortunately this gave many residents the impression that the purpose of the alert was to promote the charity event.

The message in its entirety:

“This 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”

The message was sent to 27,000 people and the department received fewer than 10 complaints, none of which were about the helicopter landing. Instead of feeling like the department was keeping them informed of potentially alarming events, some residents got the impression the system was being abused to promote an event.

The lesson to be learned is the need to choose words very carefully in an alert message. Overuse of a trusted public alerting system has the potential to turn citizens away from registering or even paying attention.

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