Watch Duty, California’s wildfire tracking app, attracts users and raises concerns among officials

ByLance T. Lee

Jul 26, 2022

A computer application known to monitor wildfires is itself being monitored, drawing attention for its quickly triggered alerts among North Bay fire departments, residents and businesses.

In business for nearly a year, Watch Duty was launched in August 2021 by two Sonoma County men who cobbled together a program that delivers wildfire alerts to electronic devices. It went from 78,000 registered devices in October to 193,000 this month. When a fire breaks out, more than 180,000 of those users check the app, according to the company.

Due to this growth, the app has caught the attention of not only users, but also emergency responders. Many advertise the application’s fast response time. Some would like to see more coordination with their agencies.

Damian Boune, 46, of Cazadero in West Sonoma County, and John Mills, 40, of Healdsburg, two software developers, have both worked for decades in technology engineering and development. They met last summer in the parking lot of the Fort Ross Fire Department along the North Sonoma coast. There, Boune serves as support staff, in addition to her full-time technology consulting, app and parenting work.

The fear and danger created by the Tubbs and Kincade fires of 2017 and 2019, respectively, had a profound effect on Boune.

“I thought to myself, ‘How can I create a safer environment for my children and my community?’ “said this father of two children, aged 5 and 7.

When the 2020 Walbridge Fire broke out near Healdsburg as part of a flash complex, the urgency to develop the app “sealed the deal” for Boune, he said. The blaze destroyed 156 homes and 293 structures across the isolated hills north of Guerneville, according to The Press Democrat.

The beauty of the Watch Duty app, according to its developers, is its ability to use official agency sources from a variety of sites and scanners instead of relying on social media posts.

“We were all frustrated with what was coming out on Facebook. It was very loud – not productive,” Boune told the Business Journal, equating “noise” with emotion-based messaging that sometimes strays from communicating the facts needed in times of crisis.

How is Watch Duty received?

At times, the Sonoma County-centric app has drawn criticism from fire and emergency departments tasked with responding to such cases.

Cal Fire Captain Tom Knecht believes the Watch Duty app is being operated with “the best of intentions”. But he would like reporters and volunteer app managers to check with the agencies’ public information officers about the information they hear on the radio before publishing it.

“One of the problems we have is that every time the police and fire department release information, we have to be sure three times, and we are on the same page. People don’t realize there’s more going on behind the scenes,” he said. The label he refers to in public safety circles is called “unified command.”

The problem arises for Knecht when Watch Duty sends messages that imply that residents can return to their homes and businesses after being evacuated.

“It’s a fight,” he said. “There’s value in how quickly people are out of harm’s way, but there’s no reason to get people back before it’s safe for re-entry,” he said. .

Knecht also challenged a proceeding that resulted in “unintended consequences.” Cal Fire responded to a Lake County fire last summer and had to apply for a state disaster relief assistance grant. When the California Office of Emergency Services got wind of Watch Duty’s “progress has stopped” announcement, it assumed the funding was no longer needed and canceled the request.

“Hopefully with the way forward, we can work together to release the information, simultaneously. It’s not good for the community to have it in draft form,” he said.

Boune agreed, pledging to work alongside agencies to release the most accurate information available.

“We have solved some of these problems. All good – good information and one of our principles. Nothing is perfect. But do we want to achieve the best possible scenario? Yes,” Boune said in response. “We will be more thoughtful in how we signal containment.”

Still, Boune warned that the relationship between the two parties will not always be in full agreement. For example, he shied away from being responsible for how other state offices view the language of firefighting.

“It all comes down to a misunderstanding of what is meant by ‘forward progression has stopped’,” he said. “We know that doesn’t mean the risk is gone. This does not mean confinement. But we totally support (Cal Fire) and understand how difficult it is to access this information. It is very important to us that people understand what is official.

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