We started off 2023 with ambitious goals for the year – expand beyond California, hire a full-time team, become financially self-sufficient, and continue to improve our best-in-class emergency alerting service. In 2021 and 2022, we had no budget or full-time staff, yet as a team made up entirely of volunteers, we managed to build a product and brand that is trusted by residents and first responders alike. We are proof that “a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world.”
Although we went a tremendous distance with all sweat and no money, we are able to secure a modest budget to hit the ground running in 2023. We started by hiring a full-time team consisting of myself (unpaid CEO), Dave Merritt (CTO), Brian Harris (CPO), and three staff reporters, Michael (@cafirescanner), Cole (LNU Fire Scanner), and Sekhar (@barkflight).
Over the following months we expanded to 10 additional states in May, launched our paid membership in July, and on-boarded and trained 80 additional volunteers, all while building a large set of new features and refinements to keep our place as the most trusted source for wildfire information. In addition, our Echo radio project left the R&D laboratory and is now filling radio-dead zones throughout California and we just launched our first in Oregon.
By the end of fire season, Watch Duty had become a household name trusted by over 1.3 million residents and first responders. Government agencies, utilities, and other emergency managers have become some of our most fervent users. At their request, we began selling memberships in bulk for their employees. It is clear that even those who protect us are starved for real-time information, just like residents.
Our product’s ease of use and widespread utilization by firefighters has established us as a trusted organization at the local, state, and federal fire services. Emergency managers from major fire areas are now giving us direct information about new vegetation fires, ongoing conflagrations, and even evacuation zone mapping data.
Our users have also shown support with their wallets. In 2023, 16,000 users became paid members, and thousands more made additional donations. This is an incredible milestone – proof that we are providing an unparalleled service that residents and professionals need and want to support.
With all of our successes this year, we decided to double down on next year's growth with the hiring of Nick Russell, VP of Operations, and Will Krispin, VP of Development. Nick has been with us for over a year now as a staff reporter as well as the creator of our Echo Radio project, and Will joins us from Uber, where he was the Global Chief of Staff for Business Development.
In 2024, we will continue to focus on what has made us successful: trust, integrity, and most importantly, product-led growth. We will not let up until there is a single source of truth for all wildfire information.
Residents, as well as first responders, are still living without easy access to critical information such as evacuation zones and shelters – having to search during times of duress. The number of new sources like wildfire cameras, radio feeds, and various sheriff and fire social media pages continues to grow – adding noise and potential confusion during emergencies. This highlights why our communities have become so reliant on Watch Duty as a unified, trusted information source.
Making sense of all the information can even be taxing for our expert radio staff, which is why building software tools for reporters is a major theme this year. Our reporting staff has an incredible amount of lifting power, with a speed and precision that is unmatched by any OES, even with the limited amount of tooling currently available. The expansion to ten additional states, while successful, put a lot of strain on our team and came at the expense of a lot of radio hours and manual sourcing of information. In 2024, we will be working to bring even more data directly in and launch an “all-seeing” map that will track every detection, dispatch, and vegetation fire in real-time. These systems will work in tandem with a filtering and acknowledgment system, allowing us to stay even more in sync and never miss a dispatch.
This new tooling will be the foundation of more strategic territory expansion, which is currently focused on Hawaii and Texas, but we will continue to explore other states with a focus on a more sustainable expansion rate.
In lieu of another large-scale territory expansion, we are going to focus on working more closely with first responders, utilities and government agencies in our existing territories. This includes delving more deeply into all-hazards, or better put, more hazards than just wildfire. Over the past two years, our reporters have also been monitoring floods, weather advisories, and other disasters that involve life and safety with no single place to find actionable information – just like wildfire used to be before Watch Duty.
This coming year will be another ambitious one for the Watch Duty team – but let’s be honest: we live for this work. It’s hard to believe that only three years ago, I listened to many of our current team on social media as they guided me through the 50,000 acre Walbridge Fire in my backyard. Now, we’re in the hands of first responders who are protecting us.
If you’d told me in 2021 what we would accomplish in just two short years, I wouldn’t have believed you. I couldn't possibly understand the magnitude of what we would become – but I haven't doubted us since. Our team of volunteers are following their passion and doing what they love – helping others, overcoming extraordinary challenges, and asking for nothing in return. Not all heroes wear Nomex and drag hose; some wear headsets and listen to radios.
To an exciting 2024 and beyond!
CEO & Cofounder
In December of 2022, we announced our Echo Project for capturing first responder radio communications deep within the wildlands of California and beyond. Watch Duty reporters, (much like traditional news reporters, government contractors, and even utility companies like PG&E) use handheld radio scanners and internet-based scanners to listen to first responders during an emergency. This is how we make sense of what is going on in real-time, between the daily official press briefings to keep residents up-to-date. As it turns out, PG&E and CalFIRE contractors, like dozer operators and water tenders, do precisely the same thing. Contractors and agencies working across multiple regions and states, use the online radio streaming service Broadcastify.com to listen to local radios in multiple regions..
Broadcastify is the primary source for internet-based police and fire radio traffic. It’s free to use, and thousands of people host well-established feeds, which are essentially radio frequencies connected to the internet. Unfortunately, some feeds are unreliable; they go offline or have too much static, and some areas don’t have any feed coverage. As a result, our radio scanning reporters struggle to provide accurate and comprehensive reporting due to missed and/or cutoff transmissions. These feeds serve as lifelines not just for the Watch Duty team but also for first responders and the community as a whole – it’s vital that they operate reliably at all times. Echo aims to fix this.
Instead of scanning channels, Echo-generated streams are fixed to channel sets built for the locality, agency, or region, allowing simultaneous left and right audio streaming from any active channel without the cutoff often generated by scanning-type radios.
Echo Devices are built on relatively inexpensive, single-board computers (Raspberry Pi’s), with several RTL-SDR Blog’s (Software Defined Radios) and a discone antenna. Our volunteer team has sourced, assembled, and programmed Echo to be sent out to local and rural areas throughout the Western States.
Our hope is for Echo to be effective and expandable for the years to come. As radio technologies evolve and frequency bandwidths are modified to adjust to new systems, we want to ensure that Echo is prepared to grow as radio technology advances.
The shape of the discone antenna provides the opportunity to be utilized in omnidirectional wideband designs and broad-scale data reception. These antennas are commonly used for frequencies above 30MHz and have excellent VHF/UHF (very high frequency and ultra-high frequency) applications over long distances.
Echos are powered by POE (Power over Ethernet) which includes a myriad of benefits including ease of installation, safety, and reliability. This removes the need for a licensed electrician and also easily allows us to remotely power-cycle the device should it ever stop responding.
After many fire seasons, our team has identified broad areas of the Western US that lack proper internet radio coverage. In order to fill these dead zones, we must find suitable hosts who are willing to host an Echo. Local communities, Firewise groups, emergency managers, and publishing articles like this help to find Echo hosts.
There are really only a few requirements to hosting an Echo: power, internet, and proximity to radio towers. The easiest to solve are power and Internet as there are many known solutions off the shelf. Almost all of our Echos have backup power and most host sites have batteries or generators to ensure uninterrupted power. Internet connections are becoming much easier with the advent of Starlink, which allows a reliable connection anywhere we need. Many of our sites have backup internet, but that isn't required for Starlink users.
The more challenging problem to solve is where to locate the Echo so that it can hear the most radio towers. At first we thought the highest ridges and peaks would be best but it turns out there is a lot of desense at those peaks: meaning the signal strength is too high and is being bombarded by other frequencies from those towers. As it turns out, putting our Echos in valleys and on peaks that don't have other radio equipment on them yields the best signal quality. This also makes it easier to find host sites in more populated areas.
We also use radio frequency modeling tools and other geospatial software to allow us to find the best possible locations. Below you can see a model measuring the coverage radius of an Echo, showing the signal strength based on distance and other environmental factors that affect transmission.
The map below is taken from the same modeling software to allow us to track all our Echos and our estimated signal strength. The red dots represent all of the repeaters that we are interested in listening to.
In addition to listening to and uploading audio, Echo actively listens live for ‘tone outs’: orders for engines, strike teams, and other heavy equipment. These tones are similar to telephone keypad tones but are instead broadcast over the airwaves. Each set of tones equates to a different person or apparatus in the fire service, just like a telephone number would equate to one house or cell phone.
Yellow Pages for tones doesn’t exist, so we had to build our own. We scoured the internet, partnered with multiple agencies, and recorded all the tones. The result is the most complete list on earth.
Now, when a tone out is detected, our system knows who is getting paged and in what region, and automatically notifies the correct Watch Duty team via our platform. That team can listen to the audio recording and decide to turn on our scanners or Broadcastify. Our tone out detection tool has proven so invaluable that we are now sharing these tone outs with certain emergency managers.
Echos also track nearby aircraft via their ADSB transponders, which are outfitted in all modern aircraft. We feed this data to public sources to help first responders and use this data internally to alert our team of possible fire starts that other sources may have missed.
When any known firefighting aircraft take off from their respective air bases, Watch Duty is immediately notified. More importantly, when these aircraft begin circling a potential fire start, alarm bells go off internally if we haven't already acknowledged a fire in the area.
This tool has proven invaluable for our staff of radio operators but also to Watch Duty members who can opt to pay $25/yr to track the firefighting aircraft right in the app.
As many Echos are located deep in forests, we need a way to upgrade and maintain these devices without physically accessing them regularly and to power-cycle them in case the system becomes unresponsive.
With the help of Mender.io, an Over-the-Air update software, we can manage the entire fleet from anywhere. We conduct health monitoring via Grafana and heartbeat checks to ensure reliability across the network. These feeds are paramount to not only our operation but the operation of many first responders. Downtime can be dangerous.
Our non-profit relies on donations from the community to make this possible. We are rolling out Echo’s across the Western United States with the goal of filling all the dead zones to help keep us safe. If you’d like to get involved, there are two ways you help your community:
1. Donate to fund more Echo Deployments
2. Host an Echo
If you are interested in hosting an Echo, please email us at email@example.com.
We need your help to close a $300,000 budget gap and keep Watch Duty going.
We accomplished a lot in 2023:
1) We expanded coverage to the entire Western US. We added 10 new states – a 750% increase in area covered.
2) The Watch Duty app was downloaded by more than 1 million people. During peak fire season, 350,000 people used Watch Duty daily.
3) Our volunteer team grew from 31 to 121 and full-time staff from 1 to 7. These volunteers are at the heart of Watch Duty and make our service work. We also monitored more fires than ever before, 12,270 in 2023 to be exact.
4) First responders rely on Watch Duty. We work with many agencies to provide more information to first responders and emergency managers.
Today we’re announcing our member benefits program. Membership is a great way to support a nonprofit and ensures Watch Duty will always be free for all and devoid of advertising. As a thank you for becoming a member, we’re giving you access to three new member-only features.
We are thrilled to announce that Watch Duty is now available throughout the Western United States!
We have been recruiting new volunteers and building software all winter in anticipation of this momentous occasion. Our software engineers have been hard at work strengthening our systems to handle more geographic areas and the increase in usage. We’ve recruited more radio scanners in more places — retired firefighters, dispatchers, and first responders, experienced fire reporters — to interpret what is happening in real-time. Together we are excited to bring our world-class wildfire and disaster monitoring service to more corners of the United States.
In preparation for this year’s fire season we encourage everyone to make sure they have the latest version of our app (2023.5.2 or later), which is available for download on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Thank you for your support. Please help us by letting your friends and relatives in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico know about this big news!