The Palo Alto Emergency Community Notification System
By Patrick Muffler, BPA Emergency Preparedness Chair

Beginning at 4:45 AM on 17 May 2004 there were several sightings of a cougar in the residential areas around the intersection of Middlefield Road and Embarcadero in Palo Alto. Eight hours later, the cougar was shot and killed by the Palo Alto Police Department. A detailed Incident Report dated 24 May 2004 from the Police Department to the City Council can be found at

This incident has provoked extensive discussion within Palo Alto and its neighborhoods about the city's Emergency Community Notification System. The system allows the city to send a 30-second emergency telephone message to affected areas of Palo Alto at the rate of 2,000 phone calls per hour. The system, however, was not activated on 17 May. According to the 24 May Incident Report, "At the time of the initial two sightings, due to the few number of officers on duty, the focus was on getting additional police units to the area. After the third sighting, the focus shifted to notification of the schools. The arrival of the news media resulted in staff responding to their requests for information. With all the associated activity, staff did not think of activating it [the system] until right around the time of the third sighting." Police Chief Lynne Johnson has emphasized that this was a mistake and has publicly accepted full responsibility.

How will the Police Department use the Emergency Community Notification System in the event of another sighting or incident? According to the 24 May Incident Report, after officers determine that a sighting is credible, "residents in the area will be notified via the community alerting system. Neighborhoods where an e-mail list-serve exists will be contacted in order to get the word out on the Internet."

A few details about the Emergency Community Notification System. The system was purchased by the city for $172,000 in June 1998 as a response to the 2-3 February 1998 flood. The phone number data base (supplied by SBC) includes virtually all fixed telephones in Palo Alto and is updated each month. The system does not call cell phones. It can distinguish a fax and phone line, and if it gets a busy signal, it will call that line later in the process. A message will be left if the phone is answered by a voice mail system or answering machine. Those to be contacted can be targeted by outlining areas on a map displayed on a computer; the area is then linked to the phone database. Phone call areas can be prioritized (i.e., one area first, and then another). The Palo Alto system has 32 dedicated phone lines, supplemented by 16 additional phone lines during an emergency.

Use of the Emergency Community Notification System is restricted to situations in which there is an imminent threat to life. According to Sheryl Comtois of the Palo Alto Police Department, the system has been used four times since its implementation: twice for potential flood warnings, once concerning an individual attacking others with a hammer, and once during Y2K.

On 10 February 2003, Palo Alto carried out a test of the Emergency Community Notification System to simulate an emergency warning of flooding in Barron Park. Seventy-four addresses in the 700 and 800 blocks of Los Robles and El Centro participated in the test. An excellent report by Bob Moss can be found at Bob concluded that "The system is fully operational, relatively easy and straightforward to activate and use, and could contact all 1200 homes [3800 phone numbers] in Barron Park in about 3.5 hours." Bob further stated that "We still plan to use our [neighborhood] phone and E-mail alert systems in case of flooding danger, but the city emergency phone alert system is an excellent way to notify far more people faster than any local phone tree could."

E-mail alerts can supplement the Emergency Community Notification System. For example, many residents of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood first became aware of the cougar on May 17 via a message on that neighborhood's e-mail site. For several reasons, however, E-mail lists do not substitute for the city's phone system: (1) not everyone has e-mail, (2) many who have e-mail check it only infrequently, (3) only a fraction of residents belong to a neighborhood association, and (4) some neighborhoods do not have active neighborhood associations. Nevertheless, Palo Alto and its neighborhood associations are exploring how the neighborhood e-mails lists could be better used as a supplement to the Emergency Community Notification System. Perhaps e-mail from specified addresses at the Police Department could be automatically forwarded to neighborhood lists (all or just selected ones, depending on the circumstances).

Another supplementary notification resource is the Palo Alto Weekly's e-mail bulletin service. This free service is used only to notify subscribers of urgent news-breaking events and subsequent related updates; it is not used for any other purpose (e.g., SPAM). Anyone wishing to subscribe can do so by visiting and scrolling down to Palo Alto Online E-Bulletins, directly below the Palo Alto Weekly heading.

During the month of June, the City of Palo Alto will evaluate its overall strategy for emergency notification, including not only phone and e-mail but also all other suggested modes (e.g., use of loudspeakers in police cars and fire engines). A meeting on 15 June 2004 of the Palo Alto Police Department and leaders of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (including Doug Moran, BPA President) will ensure neighborhood input to these discussions.