EAST PALO ALTO (BCN) — East Palo Alto residents received an emergency evacuation alert Tuesday, but the telephone message was sent in error, San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services officials said.
The automated alert message was sent out to the neighborhood around 5 p.m., Office of Emergency Services district coordinator Jeff Norris said.
The dial-up contractor, FirstCall emergency notification, determined that the alert was sent to residences on three streets but declined to provide details.
“The system has a database of all of the landline telephones and uses a map tool to draw the areas of the East Palo Alto city boundaries,” Norris said. “It then uses an intelligent algorithm to try and place as many calls within an area without disrupting phone service.”
The false message was sent to approximately 1,700 landline telephones and called for a voluntary evacuation, according to Norris.
It also offered the address of a relocation center and mentioned San Bruno, he said.
“It distinctly said San Bruno in the message,” Norris said. “In fact, it was the exact message that was sent out during the pipeline explosion.”
Errors in transmission prevented some residents from hearing the whole recording and left listeners confused, even prompting them to call 911, Norris said.
“We check every message in the recording process,” Norris said. “Even if we record a perfectly clear message, some machines will not receive it as expected. It’s the luck of the draw. Some were distorted, but we put in our best effort possible to make it clear and concise.”
The original message, Norris said, was intended to inform residents about a water district hearing on Oct. 19. However, officials were unaware that the automated system stores each alert until a new one replaces it.
An apology message was sent out, along with the meeting notification, after the employee who delivered the message noticed the error.
“We received quite a few calls and sent out an apology notification later that evening,” Norris said. “The vast majority of residents obviously knew this was wrong, but wanted to make sure they got the right message.”
Norris said the department is developing a safeguarding tool to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
“The system performed flawlessly in the San Bruno explosion and also in the subsequent apology call. It’s actually a very effective system in times of emergency and in threats to the public well being,” he said.
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