Citizen-Driven Network Monitors Public Service Radio For Natural Disaster Alerts

Time is of the essence in almost every emergency situation, especially when it comes to wildfires. A wind-driven fire can roar across a fuel-rich landscape like a freight train, except one that can turn on a dime or jump a mile-wide gap in a matter of seconds. Usually, the only realistic defense against fires like these is to get the hell out of their way as soon as possible and make room for the professionals to do what they can to stop the flames.

Unfortunately, most people living in areas under threat of wildfires and other natural disasters are often operating in an information vacuum. Official channels take time to distribute evacuation orders, and when seconds count, such delays can cost lives. That’s the hole that Watch Duty seeks to fill.

Watch Duty is a non-profit wildfire alerting, mapping, and tracking service that provides near-real-time information to those living in wildfire country. Their intelligence is generated by a network of experienced fire reporters, who live in wildfire-prone areas and monitor public service radio transmissions and other sources to get a picture of what’s going on in their specific area. When the data indicate an incident is occurring, maps are updated and alerts go out via a smartphone app. Reporters have to abide by a strict code of conduct designed to ensure the privacy of citizens and the safety of first responders.

While Watch Duty’s network covers a substantial area of California — the only state covered so far — there were still a significant number of dead zones, mostly in the more remote areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in the northern coastal regions. To fill these gaps, Watch Duty recently launched Watch Duty Echo, which consists of a network of remote listening posts.

Each station is packed with RTL-SDR receivers that cover a huge swath of spectrum used by the local fire, law enforcement, EMS agencies — any organization likely to be called to respond to an incident. In addition, each station has an SDR dedicated to monitoring ADS-B transponders and air band frequencies, to get a heads-up on incidents requiring aerial support. The listening posts have wideband discone antennas and a dedicated 1090-MHz ADS-B antenna, with either a cellular modem or a Starlink terminal to tie into the Watch Duty network.

Hats off to the folks at Watch Duty for putting considerable effort into a system like this and operating it for the public benefit. Those who choose to live close to nature do so at their own risk, of course, but a citizen-driven network that leverages technology can make that risk just a little more manageable.

12 thoughts on “Citizen-Driven Network Monitors Public Service Radio For Natural Disaster Alerts

      1. Why do people even use autocorrect? If I am wrong I want to be wrong because I made a mistake. Now if I get auto-corrected into forcibly making a mistake I will only look like a fool.

        Underlining words with spelling mistakes is the only way to go. Passive spell check.

    1. Oh LORD please not the “is this legal” talk again. Yes it is in the U.S. You can run stationary scanners, not mobile ones. A good reason why mobile scanners are illegal should spring to mind without me explaining.

      1. Mobile scanners are not inherently “illegal” – it is completely dependent on the state or local jurisdiction whether or not mobile scanners are allowed for the general public. And it’s not illegal in most states. In the states that do have restrictions, a federal carve-out exists for those holding amateur radio licenses.

  1. I enjoy these articles, as well as the How To and DIY. This article appears to be written to inform people of a program/system available to assist those in areas prone to disasters. It also informs people in other areas who may have people in the affected areas. I think it was good.
    As for spell check, grammar etc, not all are perfect in those areas, and in this modern World why not make use of technology when writing articles? Sure, I learned all of it in school. Nearly 60 years ago. I retired 20 years ago, and I no longer write reports daily to suit to a prosecutor, so I’ve slipped a lot. But. This isn’t about that, but protecting people.
    Many of us are radio geeks. Ham Radio Operators, CBers, SWL’s, Scanner Listeners, and computer nerds. We have the ability to share info to prepare others, to help notify of evacuations, to notify of threats to others. The majority of us are willing to volunteer our time to do so. This is how Broadcasting and others work. This is how Flightaware24 and others work. Volunteers provide the input for them.
    As for legality of scanners in the USA, as far as I know, the ownership and listening is legal in all 53 States. I mean 50 States 😁 However the use of scanners outside of a residence either in a car or on your person is subject to State and local laws. Fortunately in Texas, it is legal to possess one in a vehicle or on your person, unless it’s used in the commission of a crime.
    BTW, typing this on my phone with a fat thumb. So if I’ve made a mistake, I’m blaming it….
    73, and y’all have a good time.

  2. This stuff is seldom useful in a timely manner.

    Eyes. Ears. Nose. Situational awareness. This is what keeps you aware of hazardous events.

    Notifications from public warning systems, for my rural area in Southern California, have lagged 50 to 130 minutes for the last (7) fires over the last (3) years in my immediate area. I do not see how this system will improve my available response time to fires.

    I do see it being useful for some suburban areas.

  3. Love this app. I live in N.Cal where the app was made. The app also ties into our tower mounted camera system. There’s no lag time where I live, out in the mountains. FIre is spotted and its on the app in less than 5 minutes.

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