Last month, when the city of Palo Alto told residents living east of Skyline Boulevard to prepare to evacuate and to expect an official warning through Santa Clara County or Cal Fire, the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood was on the city's list. Two days later, however, residents in the adjacent Foothills Park area received the warning through the county's AlertSCC emergency system. Palo Alto Hills residents did not.
The message by the city — and the lack of an official warning by the county through AlertSCC — caused confusion and concern, said Mark Nadim, president of the Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association.
"I've been battling with this for the last three days with the neighbors," he said in late August when asked if the residents were preparing to possibly evacuate.
The neighborhood never made it onto the list of areas in the official warning sent by the county and Cal Fire on Aug. 23. Evacuation orders were issued for Foothills Park to the Santa Clara County line, including Los Trancos Open Space Preserve; south of Moody Road, west of Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve and west of Black Mountain to Highway 35; and Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, south of Monte Bello Road to Highway 35. They were part of a string of neighborhoods in the county from the San Mateo County line to Los Gatos, a map and press release show.
Nadim and resident Jan Terry spoke with Palo Alto Fire Chief Geo Blackshire and city Emergency Operations Center Director Ken Dueker last week to discuss what happened and ways to improve the emergency system for the next disaster, Nadim said. What was needed, Blackshire and Dueker told him, is a designated area number that can be communicated to residents, rather than the vague moniker "Palo Alto hills," which the city admittedly used in at least three different forms throughout its multiple messages. The designated number is part of the Zone Haven online tracking system that fire agencies use for identifying evacuation locations. Its map is what Cal Fire used to show the neighborhoods that were under the warning on Aug. 23.
The decision to issue the warning is coming under scrutiny. Lt. Neil Valenzuela, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office's West Valley Division, noted that after the fact, the agencies came to realize that the alert wasn't really necessary.
Cal Fire and the Santa Clara County Fire Department went back and forth in making the decision to push out a warning.
Cal Fire, along with local authorities, will declare evacuation orders to a particular zone when there is a real chance of danger, according to Valenzuela. "Cal-Fire's stance is there needs to be a legitimate reason for a warning otherwise a warning will go stale and any repeat warnings may be ignored," he said.
The homes in the evacuation warning zone were not in immediate danger of the CZU Lightning Complex fires, and Cal Fire was on the fence issuing a warning. Ultimately, Cal Fire agreed, he said, with cities wanting their communities to be prepared for the potential lightning storms in the forecast.
Some say the alert system also needs to be strengthened by reducing the number of channels through which the messages are sent. The city, for example, issued alerts to the public through multiple means: digital newsletters, blog posts, a dedicated website and social media, including Nextdoor, Twitter and Nixle.
Valenzuela said that in emergencies, "We need to have one consistent message and one point of contact." Otherwise, there is a tendency for information being pushed to vary. Oftentimes it's hard to get all the stakeholders in the same room, he said.
Nadim agreed that well-intentioned alerts from so many sources can confuse the message.
"I don't consider Twitter and Nextdoor official channels," he said by phone on Tuesday. "Nixle and AlertSCC are the ones I pay attention to. They are very accurate." Both are also disseminated by law-enforcement agencies regularly.
In an email to this news organization, city spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said emergency operations staff "did everything we could to overcommunicate (sic) what was happening so that our residents could have as much time as possible to take precautions and stay safe."
The city "made its best effort to ensure that our community was aware that an official warning would be coming later that night and that things could change quickly to ensure they were prepared."
The town of Woodside also put out a similar notification in advance to its community, she said. "With several County agencies falling within the areas west of 280, residents could receive official evacuation warnings or other alerts from Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County and SCC (Santa Clara) County."
The Palo Alto alerts identified the affected neighborhoods in various ways, however.
"The City's initial 'heads up' pre-notification used several phrases to define the Palo Alto foothills including Palo Alto Hills, Palo Alto hills and Palo Alto hills areas," Horrigan-Taylor said.
"Once the official notification came out the City's follow-up communications listed areas west of 280, including the Palo Alto Foothills and Foothills Park and pointed residents to the official map so they could make their own determination if their property was in the affected areas," she said.
Horrigan-Taylor said Cal Fire told the city that areas in its jurisdiction, including the Palo Alto foothills and surrounding areas, were going to be notified of an evacuation warning. When the official warning came and Palo Alto Hills was not on the map, she said the areas under an evacuation order were updated due to changes in the weather predictions.
Valenzuela confirmed that maps and official warnings can change quickly, but he did not have any other maps to show if the Palo Alto foothills was previously included in a warning. Though asked, the city also did not provide any map or communication showing the neighborhood was previously designated in the zone.
Going forward, Blackshire and Dueker said during their meeting last week that the city would use the numbered-area designations, also called polygons, from Zone Haven, according to Nadim.
Nadim and Terry still question why AlertSCC wasn't utilized for their neighborhood. During past PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, residents received multiple notifications, he and Terry pointed out.
Valenzuela said the Sheriff's Office was responsible for notifying unincorporated areas within the county and city law enforcement was tasked with informing residents in its jurisdiction, meaning incorporated areas. The county did notify the three Palo Alto zones through AlertSCC that were within the warning area.
Annette Glanckopf, co-chair of Palo Alto's Emergency Services Volunteers Program, said the rules for using AlertSCC have tightened. In 2013, 27,000 Palo Alto residents received a notice about a firefighters' pancake breakfast, which some thought was a misuse of the emergency-notification system. Then-Fire Chief Eric Nickel defended the alert at the time, saying that a helicopter was set to land at Walter Hays Elementary School and the department didn't want to receive a flood of calls from concerned citizens.
But even the "official" emergency platform might need some work, Glanckopf said. While AlertSCC is useful as a hub for disseminating emergency information, it is "only as good as we make it," she said.
When the system was first set up, the county put all of the numbers found in phone directories into its database, but many of those were landline numbers. Many people no longer have landlines, however, she noted.
"For years, the city had an ad campaign to get people to go online to AlertSCC and enter additional information such as cellphone numbers; there's no way AlertSCC would know numbers for cellphones," she said. That's why it's important for people to sign up and update their contact information, she added.
To be effective in an emergency, "you need to basically get everyone on a forum that communicates quickly to get people to pay attention and be engaged," she said.
Valenzuela confirmed that landlines initially comprised the bulk of AlertSCC's notification database, but that's changed. He said users can sign up online or add their cellphone numbers here.
Whichever platform people use, Glanckopf's greater concern is that everyone should get onto something, and preferably one that will inform them instantaneously rather than through emails or other means that require research.
"The message is to sign up — at least for Nixle — which the Police Department uses to send out messages all of the time. It's better formatted than Twitter, which has limited messaging," she said.
In terms of the chain of command, Cal Fire doesn't give evacuation orders, Valenzuela and a Cal Fire spokeswoman said. The agency advises and informs law enforcement — usually county sheriff's offices — regarding areas threats. Cal Fire does issue press releases on warnings and evacuations, and did so during the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Horrigan-Taylor said that "all agencies have legal authority to issue warnings and/or evacuation orders. In this case, if the warning became an evacuation order from Cal Fire and Santa Clara County, the city would have "reinforced the order" through all of its communications channels.
"Fortunately, that did not become necessary. The most important part of this process is that even without a warning, residents should be prepared in advance and be ready. If residents feel unsafe, they can evacuate before an official order is given," she said.