WatchDuty App/website

There is a new grassroots organization of homeowners in the North Bay of CA (Sonoma, Napa, and Lake Counties) that have tech backgrounds that have started a non-profit and developed an app & website to provide the public with immediate information/intel on fires in these three counties.

I came across it last night during the flurry of 10 new starts in our County and was extremely impressed. I can see this catching on quickly to other counties. There is no charge, fees, advertising associated with the app, it is strictly public emergency information.

Watch Duty - Map of current fire information

About Watch Duty

Disclaimer I am not affiliated nor do I know anyone involved with this project. I just happened upon it last night and thought it would be useful to others.

10 Likes

It reminds me a lot of this forum, users posting direct direct radio traffic, except one has to be granted a login to post on WatchDuty. While we all appreciate the knowledge and information here in incidents (Ops Maps, KML’s, Cameras, detailed weather, incidents predictions etc) I would love to see the app stay simple with radio traffic and general information only. I don’t know how it will handle a large scale incident with the updates and finding previous updates, only time will tell with that. Overall I think it’s a great app and I am wondering how one is granted access to post to the incident feed (They call it “Citizen Information Officers”). I think the push notification integration and update notifications are great too.

2 Likes

Here is their inquiry email address feedback@watchduty.org

Yes, I’m not sure how they vet the intel they post but maybe that’s why not just anyone can post info that will be pushed out. I see WildFire Intel as a much more robust and a much deeper dive into the deep end of the wildfire situation we are currently experiencing. Also the General Discussion area is invaluable here and would not be a feature of “Watch Duty” I would be looking for, for fear it would turn into the “NextDoor” of useless uneducated banter about Wildland firefighting.

4 Likes

Just downloaded the app (iOS)

Its a clean and easy to use app with good UI.
And it has nice push notifications. I will give it a try.

From the APP
“Our team includes skilled radio operators ,firefighters, and citizen information officers”

4 Likes

This sounds pretty awesome, as long as proper context is conveyed with the radio traffic, either by implied experience like here, or added on by some of us who do this in the social media world, Facebook groups etc.

What I see often missed in those groups that have a scanner, got lucky finding the frequencies to program, and regurgitating what they hear to the general population, is the background/context of how to digest the information. I see on FB someone convey “1/4 acre rapid rate of spread” and then 50 replies panicking about evacuation. Before “fire contained to 1 acre” etc.

4 Likes

Yes agreed @norcalscan , it would be very easy for a lay person to read too much into one radio transmission without having some context added. I have used the app for only a couple of days now and so far what I have seen has been positive. I think the fact that they do not let anyone post and that they have a core group of folks that can post is a step in the right direction. I contacted one of their developers/founders and they do have firefighters in their volunteer staff that post/vet information.

4 Likes

Watch Duty is expanding - good read

Watch Duty, launched last year, sends users push notifications about new and spreading fire, giving them vital time to prepare

Growing threats from wildfires loom large across the American west as blazes burn with greater ferocity and frequency. Alongside them, residents’ calls for on-demand information during disasters has only continued to grow.

Butte County firefighters watch as flames quickly spread across a road in Oroville, California.
‘I thought I was broken’: when wildland firefighters head home, trauma takes hold
Read more
In California, just hours north of the tech hub in Silicon Valley, a new app called Watch Duty has jumped into the void. The budding platform promises to alert and warn users about encroaching wildfires in real time – and it’s free.

State fire officials have concerns about the potential spread of unverified information, but the founders say they are just doing what the government can not, and that in an era when conflagrations can consume football fields of land in mere moments – each minute matters.

Watch Duty launched last year, and now sends push notifications to more than 80,000 users in four California counties about new and spreading ignitions. Equipped with photo-sharing features, it also enables users to share their own reports with the administrators.

The app sprouted out of a strong social media emergency information ecosystem that has for years communicated unofficial information. It relies on volunteers dubbed “reporters” who listen for emergency updates in the low hum of radio static, analyze data from the National Weather Service and other sources, and discuss findings with one another before sending push notifications to their active user-base. Often, their info gets out much faster than official emergency updates.

Man wearing a hat standing at door of a vehicle.
Watch Duty founder John Mills at his property in Sonoma County. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian
“The government cannot provide all this information to us,” Watch Duty reporter Damian Bouné said. “The way they do things – the way they need to do things – they are restricted from being very nimble and the environment we are in requires us to be nimble.”

The app was founded by John Mills, a Silicon Valley veteran who retired early after launching startups mostly in the business sector. Mills splits his time between San Francisco and a sprawling Sonoma county property, purchased in 2019. He said he’d planned to escape into the verdant hillsides to start a different kind of incubator, one where people who want to solve the world’s problems can come stay for free while they tinker and build.

In August 2020, the Walbridge fire raged near his estate, and Mills found himself among the thousands of Californians who spend summer evenings scanning dozens of browser tabs to discern whether the danger had passed or if it was imminent. Posts on Facebook and Twitter provided the only solace, he recalled.

“My goal was to find the most famous and influential people and tell them we are building a non-profit so they could scream into the biggest megaphone we could possibly build,” Mills said of the contributors independently providing emergency updates online.

Now, dozens talk in Watch Duty Slack channels. There are 11 official “reporters” assigned to different districts. Soon, Mills said, the team will expand statewide and he expects their user base to grow exponentially. Only time will tell, but so far, the public seems appreciative.

Watch Duty does not charge fees or post ads. The team will begin accepting donations in the future and may explore a subscription model for add-on features.

That apps like Watch Duty have sprung up isn’t exactly surprising. Every year, more and more people living in the American west are confronted with fire risk. Right now, official updates get distributed through community conferences often held hours apart. Evacuation orders are issued online, by phone, or sometimes in person.

But at-risk residents are desperate for more information that can help them either assuage anxiety or jump into action. Oftentimes, they turn to social media groups, pages, or trusted accounts to piece together the situation on the ground.

Representatives at CalFire, the state fire agency, and the California Office of Emergency Services said they understood the demand for fast information. But they cautioned against relying on non-official sources of information during disasters.

It is not crazy to say that in the future you might watch a fire burning on a satellite feed
Brian Ferguson
“The speed that we get the information to the public is paramount and we work diligently with our partners to do that,” said CalFire battalion chief Jon Heggie. “But it also needs to be accurate. Any and all information needs to be verified.”

“I can order a burrito and see where it is on the road in arriving to me for lunch – but I can’t necessarily do that for the weather or for fire or for disasters,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of Crisis Communications at CalOES. “Validating the information takes time.”

Ferguson added that the state is working to improve the way intel is gathered and distributed. “It is not crazy to say that in the future you might watch a fire burning on a satellite feed. The world is evolving very rapidly and there is absolutely a desire to make sure that our efforts to keep people safe evolve in that same way.”

Mills is not willing to wait. He trusts his team of local experts to decide if information gathered is good enough to share with the public. “The stars and bars and top brass are not happy with what we are doing,” he said. “But when the fire is going 30-plus mph it doesn’t care if you aren’t ready. People need to know how to prepare.”

Joe Stewart, a captain at northern Sonoma county fire agrees. He’s seen first-hand how it works in his community. “Everyone in California has been hit hard by wildfire but Sonoma county has had three fires that have been once-in-a-lifetime fires. ”

A building engulfed in flames at a vineyard during the 2019 Kincade fire in California.
A building engulfed in flames at a vineyard during the 2019 Kincade fire in California. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
As the dangers mount, “people are starved for information”, Stewart said.

Stewart sees the value of clueing in the public early. Perhaps it will allow someone to fuel their car when they see that a fire might head their way. Or maybe it will give them vital extra time to gather essentials before an evacuation. “The more our community knows about what’s going on,” he said, “it helps us in the fire service and it helps the community as well.”

Mills said he anticipates pushback from officials as Watch Duty starts to scale, but he’s confident that his budding platform will be impactful enough without official endorsements. “Our hope is to be so important, so loud, and so obnoxious that we can’t be ignored.”

Damian Bouné, the “reporter”, is eager to see their service expand. They will continue to rely on locals like him who devote hours and stay-up nights to inform their neighbors, he said. He appreciates the comradery Watch Duty provides and the way it enables people like him to engage in a new way, but more than that, it’s about protecting the places and people he loves. Born and raised in Sonoma county, he’s lived with fire his entire life. But fires have changed.

“It is clear that it has become imperative that we do this,” he said. “People are dying and without this we are blind.”

2 Likes

As much as I agree with all you said and love the grass roots effort to get info out to those who need it quickly for “Free” is a splendid and very noble gesture by Mr Mills and his peeps, for now BUT, the elephant in the room has surfaced and that is seeking donation, and what? A subscription fee in the future? What happens when the average person living in the Wildland arena who can’t even afford insurance let alone are on fixed incomes etc, everyone knows the communities and properties I’m talking about, we’ve all seen them in the field.
The hook is it’s free now, if this is to be free then let the supporters or those who truly have been blessed keep it free.
If the plan is to develope a App that is truly a great resource for all at risk and the plan is to have it grow state wide or beyond then the initiater/s of said app should have a mechanism in place for future funding and relying on the very people Mr Mills wants to protect and serve and inform do not become a revenue source for Mr. Mills and and his teams. I’m only stating that as soon as this site requires a subscription price, many of those who will need this critically important resource will be lost in the backwash in the name of progress and profit.

3 Likes

I agree, developers take time, servers need electricity, etc. Nothing is “free” in tech. Are investors investing out of the goodness of their heart knowing fire is deeply rooted in California, or are they investing for an eventual financial ROI?

And to touch a bit on the Reporter aspect, its current volunteer status, etc. Humbly speaking, I think I fit that role well. However I do this as part of serving the wildland community here on WFI, friends and family. There are no expectations here, I do what I can in between work tasks (which is mutually beneficial at times), kids and spouse. And often times I rarely duplicate my work elsewhere due to time. I know many regurgitate mine and other’s reports from here onto various social media platforms and that’s great, helps get it out to the community, all as a big team helping to serve. But when things get commercialized, especially on the consumer side and nothing on the producing side, stings a little; even more if some “Reporter” keeps taking my work and regurgitating it out for a potential profit. It’s not about the money (for me) but it’s about the money for someone, and if serious revenue is made off the backs of volunteers then there’s a problem. I think many of us would help, and not worry about a few dollars here and there. But we’d all be stupid to turn away significant change.

And finally, the vetting process is real, like I mentioned earlier in this thread. Vetting here on WFI is done from posting history, experience, vouching from others etc. Subject Matter Experts float to the top and are trusted by the community. Similar to those that pass on the intel to social media, they are well-known and respected as SME’s. All of us in this intel stack understand and respect the potential weight of our words. If reporters aren’t vetted, and known, then there’s potential for a lot damage to be done. When you have a megaphone to 80,000 people, most of whom are in desperation and their guard is “down” seeking any info they can get, it’s important to tread lightly and get it right 100%.

2 Likes

We are in the middle of a huge shift in how news gets made and reported, and in what constitutes a ‘journalist’. Glad to see people digging into the ethical implications of how it is all shaking out. It’s worth noting that news has rarely been ‘free’. You pay for it in your attention, watching advertisements and clicking sponsored content. With The Lookout website, many people have made voluntary contributions, which has made it possible for us to make all of our content available without charging for access, but the cost of running the site is significant (including paying for internet, software, phone, hiring people to make maps and copyedit posts, or for my own time).

I was thinking about the same thing as @norcalscan, that it’s kind of a bummer to pour a ton of volunteer intel work onto the internet and then see someone make money packaging it. If nothing else, sites that use crowdsourced information should be diligent in providing proper attribution to their original sources. It’s worth remembering, too, that this site is owned by a company that provides wildfire intel services to private clients.

5 Likes

I for one have great respect and appreciation for the folks reporting regularly on this site with both pertinent vetted info, to the weather reports and spot forecast regularly contributed on this site without subscription. Those giving freely of their time, experience, training and knowledge to the betterment of the situation out of sheer love for their fellow man or woman are true heros right along side those doing the battle. Thank You for your past work and current and future commitments.

6 Likes

I could see the possibility of the developers taking a hybrid approach to the app whereby you register for your home county, which remains free due to the public safety component and have additional counties become fee or subscription based. I agree with the above comments about it being a very high value to the public for notifications. Nixle and some others are good for Public Alerts but aren’t always real time information nor are all counties using it. The WatchDuty app, so far has been the closest to RT updates as anything I have seen. I see both sides, I think they deserve to be fairly compensated for the great work they have done building this app, but I also see that the public who benefit from the safety aspect of an incident in their home area may not pay for a subscription or have the money to do so. If they do end up going to a fee based app, would hope they consider the option of having an unpaid option for a person’s home county.

1 Like

I read many of your post and tend to side with you on many issues, please don’t get me wrong as I hate when people’s good intentions are stolen and used for another’s profit as well, I just hate to have something touted as free and then once accepting and depending on said resource the boom drops and it can no longer be afforded. It like getting dropped by your insurance company after being loyal for 20 years.
To me, if the intent is to grow, and developers know the grow potential, don’t dangle the carrot as “Free” with the intent of charging subscriptions later.
Apps like this should be upfront as an upstart and not treat it like they are doing those in residing in the Wildlands or urban interface a huge favor with the goal of making a profit in the future, which it will if it is that good. But the original grass roots intent will get lost as stated earlier as many will not be able to pay for it monthly( unless it is very low ).
It is very difficult to step up for free and volunteer skills, knowledge, time, effort etc, but that is what makes it so rewarding, knowing that you could be apart of saving a life, providing info for a safe way out or even helping someone decide if it is time to go or not. Hopefully the developers will find a funding source and not force those in the at risk areas just getting by to choose to pay for the subscription or pay bills.

Now that is an idea! Can the counties who want it for their citizens protection purchase the app and allow the residences to sign in using their zip code as part of the sign up to receive access.

Nice!

1 Like

I was just in the app and yes, all of the counties are now available however, you can only subscribe to 4 counties for alerts. However, the State map does show all the incidents both active and inactive that you can click on and see all of the information. Suspect, that you can move subscribed counties in and out if there is an active incident in a county you aren’t currently subscribed. Also, tend to suspect that now that it is Statewide and we have most of CA represented here, we will get a pretty good cross section as more people subscribe to their counties of interest. However, it ends up going, this app so far is top notch in my view

2 Likes

Yes, I agree with that, looks very promising.

There is a market for this and like previous poster said I see municipalities/agencies purchasing the app framework to use for sharing fire location, shelters, evac notifications and safe routes out of the area. I am giving my free advice to a start up now. It will be an app an agency uses to communicate these things. Its not a crowdsourced information tool but agencies imho need to be using crowdsoures OSINT to help better understand the situation on all incidents to drive the info that goes to their public facing emergency communication apps.

2 Likes

Feel free to ask any questions you want about Watch Duty. The majority of our reporters are on this forum in one way or another.

4 Likes

Hi All. I’m a member of the Watch Duty team. I’ve been lurking in this forum for a while, and I appreciate what you all do.

My real name is Damian Bouné. I grew up in and live in a deep West Sonoma County community centered around a fire department. I am a software engineer by trade, though I am not the primary developer of Watch Duty, but a reporter that has been with the project from the start.

As Josh said, we are happy to answer your questions. I’ll try to address some of your comments and questions from the thread.

I am wondering how one is granted access to post to the incident feed

If you are interested in reporting through Watch Duty, please write to feedback @ watchduty . org (sorry, two link limit). We would love to talk to you. We do have a multi-stage vetting process that we will guide prospective reporters through.

We were using the term CIOs, but now it’s just plainly “reporters”.

I’m not sure how they vet the intel they post but maybe that’s why not just anyone can post info that will be pushed out.

Our Code of Conduct addresses much of how we operate, and more info is also available in our FAQ. As someone else mentioned, we do have firefighters on board with us, and most of us have been at this for years. You’ll recognize some of us from Fire Twitter.

Watch Duty exists in part because of some of the issues you all have mentioned about how problematic social media threads can become, and all of us involved specifically wanted a way to distribute good information effectively without the noise.

the elephant in the room has surfaced and that is seeking donation, and what? A subscription fee in the future?

We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Donations are welcome and help pay for the resources required to provide Watch Duty. There are servers, file storage, various other technical services, and more that represent a cost to our organization.

Subscriptions for extra non-critical features are one idea on how we can encourage recurring donations. We haven’t settled on what exactly that would be, but we do have some ideas. One requirement is that if it can be considered critical to getting information to those who need it, we will not charge for it.

There are no financial investors, and no returns are promised on donations. We are not chasing an ROI. We are all people who have been affected by fire, and know how important good information is in this environment because there was a time when we as individuals were having difficulty finding it, so we are doing something about that.

Note that there are no advertisements in Watch Duty, and there will never be.

Can the counties who want it for their citizens protection purchase the app and allow the residences to sign in using their zip code as part of the sign up to receive access.

This is one of the ideas we have tossed around. Still baking. So long as the end result doesn’t restrict private citizens from getting the important information they need, we are considering it. Adding value for everyone has to be the goal, but if it helps fund us so that we can keep doing this, we would be thankful.

If any of you have more questions, please do ask. One of us will be happy to answer.

Thank you all for being a part of the fire information community.

10 Likes

Thank you for your reply and transparency. The primary concern is always for the people and not to deter people from this promising site, there are many sites that use the “free” tag as the hook and impose the rates. If getting the most critical information on the site for the average basic user remains free as stated, I say well done and bravo to you and all your team members who have and will continue to give of there valuable time, knowledge, startup funding, and skills to bring a potential life saving app to those who need it most. It’s hard to be the one asking hard questions without offending people. My heart is into volunteering and helping those who I can. Much Respect.

2 Likes