Although we’ve met on occasion in my former life as a newspaper editor, Waterbury (Connecticut) Mayor Neil M. O’Leary wouldn’t be able to recognize me in a crowd (I’ve tested this). The city’s police chief, Fernando Spagnolo, would know me by name only, if that. (I don’t think they have a mug shot of me hanging on the wall.)
Yet when the two of them want to invite my wife and me to a party, it’s not only a big deal. It’s an emergency.
It said so right on the robocall we got this week: “Stand by for an emergency notification from CT-Alert.” They wanted us to come to the National Night Out, complete with face painting and balloon art.
Like just about everyone else in the world, we both carry smartphones these days. We’ve had the same numbers for years — back to when AT&T, then just about the only wireless game in town, issued them for the Waterbury area.
Over the years, we both signed up for emergency alert services both in Connecticut and in Vermont, where we have a summer place. Both states offer people the chance to subscribe to notifications about emergencies such as criminal activity, natural disasters, winter storms, fires, major accidents, power failures, water main breaks and the like using SMS text messaging or automated robocalls to cellphones, landlines and other media.
These alerts can truly be life-savers. Over the years, we’ve used them to shelter from hurricanes and winter storms (which are all too common) and from tornadoes (less so, but too close to home). In doing so, we added the incoming SMS and toll-free numbers for both state’s services to our contacts.
A tale of two cities
That’s how we learned that both states appear to use the same emergency alert service. One day up in Vermont we received messages from what our contacts list identified as that state’s alert service that Mayor O’Leary and Chief Spagnolo were advising people that a water main break had closed, as I recall, Cherry Street in Waterbury.
I marveled at the coincidence. Not only did each state have a Waterbury, but both the big city and its tiny namesake had a Mayor O’Leary, a Chief Spagnolo and a Cherry Street!
Vermont’s Waterbury, population 5,064, has had to issue boil-water notices for the occasional water problem, but it doesn’t have a mayor or, as of last year, a police department. It is run by a select board (still known in Connecticut as the board of selectmen) and covered by two resident state police troopers. As far as I can tell, its only Cherry is Cherry Garcia at the Ben and Jerry’s tour.
No matter. Such emergency alerts are few and far between, especially if you sign up for only a few towns, such as where you live and work. In Connecticut, we had registered years ago for alerts from our home town of Southbury and from Middlebury, where we attend church, and Waterbury, where I worked for 35 years.
Then, on July 17, coincidentally the day of the city’s Republican nominating convention and the day before the Democrats nominated O’Leary to run again, we got another one.
O’Leary and Spagnolo sent out an invitation to an open house to improve police community relations. An important program, to be sure; we need more community-building projects like that one, and like the National Night Out event we received notice of most recently. I’m all for them.
But is it really an emergency?
Both the mayor’s office and the police department are highly media-savvy: print, radio, grassroots organizations, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Even text messages would be appropriate, if the recipient were given the opportunity to opt into such social invitations.
Somehow, though, using an emergency alert system to invite people to a citywide community event seems an abuse of the medium. It might even backfire and lead people to ignore these text messages and robocalls. That could endanger public safety.
So, Mr. Mayor, if you really want to invite me to a party (seriously?), don’t robocall. Don’t text. I’d rather read about it in the paper.
Howard Fielding is a retired editor and columnist for the Republican-American.