Next Year’s Goals and 2023 Year End Review

December 21, 2023

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!

John Mills
CEO & Cofounder