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Popular Wildfire App Highlights Radio Encryption Dilemma

Watch Duty, a wildfire-tracking app manned by volunteers monitoring fire scanners, provides emergency information to the public. As the app expands, so does debate about fire department scanner traffic encryption.

When the 2020 Walbridge wildfire threatened John Clarke Mills’ off-grid home in Sonoma County, he was frustrated by a lack of accessible information.

While government agencies seemed to have critical data, it wasn’t reaching him. However, he discovered online communities where radio enthusiasts and retired public safety professionals were aggregating scanner traffic and public alerts from multiple agencies.

This observation ignited an idea: a comprehensive wildfire tracking app that could combine data from multiple sources and provide real-time updates. That idea became the Watch Duty app, and its rapid rise is now fueling a debate about public access to emergency information.


In 2021, Mills launched Watch Duty, recruiting a team of more than 150 passionate scanner listeners — many of whom are retired wildland firefighters, dispatchers, first responders and reporters — to form the app’s backbone. The platform employs an automated monitoring system that alerts volunteers on Slack, prompting those in the area to actively monitor radio scanners, wildfire cameras and other public sources.

The volunteers undergo training and background checks, working diligently to maintain the app’s high standards for accuracy.

“We really have to dot our ‘i’s’ and cross our ‘t’s’ to actually make sure that we don’t ruin the whole thing that we’ve built here or get someone killed,” Mills said in an interview with Government Technology.

That commitment to trust is written in Watch Duty’s code of conduct, which mandates that information must come from a verified source, such as radio scanner transmissions, official publications or on-the-ground personnel. The app also won’t post sensitive information like the names of victims, first responders or addresses.

Since its California launch in 2021, Watch Duty’s fire monitoring capabilities have expanded exponentially, now covering 10 states. The number of fires tracked has skyrocketed from 133 in 2021 to more than 12,000 in 2023.

According to Mills, Watch Duty has since grown to more than 1 million downloads. In the Apple App Store, it ranks highly among news apps, competing with major news outlets like the New York Times, Google News and the Wall Street Journal.


As Watch Duty’s user base grew, Mills discovered that first responders were also tuning into the app for real-time information. Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, told Government Technology he was impressed by the app’s speed and comprehensive coverage.

“I downloaded the app and was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty inclusive,’” Fennessy said. “One of the things that’s unique about Watch Duty is it’s unbelievable how fast they’re informed. Sometimes it’s minutes after a fire has been reported.”

Curious about the app’s creator, Fennessy reached out to Mills. The two now work together to publish relevant information quickly.

“I shared with him that this is an amazing app, something that’s been missing in the fire service,” Fennessy said. “As a large agency mutual aid system, it’s good to know when a fire is continuing to grow in Northern California and they might be requesting engines from us. It allows us to start planning how we backfill those empty stations and those sorts of things.”

According to Fennessy, many California first responders now rely on Watch Duty, even those on the front lines of wildfires.

“I’ve had air-tanker pilots and helicopter pilots tell me that prior to Watch Duty, they wouldn’t know much about a fire they’re responding to, other than what the dispatch information would give them, until they arrived,” he said. “They’re telling me now they’re getting more information on their walk out to their aircraft than they’ve ever gotten before.”

The reliance on Watch Duty has led to other working partnerships with public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, California State Parks and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“They just kind of can’t ignore us,” said Mills. “We want to work with them, we want more of their data. Our goal was always to democratize this information and give it all away. We’ve already paid for this, the taxpayers.”


Watch Duty isn’t the only app leveraging citizen-informed news alerts; many others rely on public radio traffic. However, the growing trend of public safety agencies encrypting radio channels to protect sensitive information has launched a debate about public access to critical updates within the fire service.

In Orange County, all first responder channels were encrypted in 2019. Fennessy, while acknowledging the need for encryption in certain law enforcement situations, has actively sought to reverse this decision for fire operations.

“We went encrypted and the switchboards lit up, all of the scanner listeners and the media lost their minds,” he said.

As he lobbied to reverse the encryption on fire channels, he discovered the process of reprogramming the radio signals to reverse the encryption is complicated and expensive. His fire agency’s scanner traffic is still encrypted due to the technical fallout.

“So I felt kind of duped, and what I’m doing is encouraging other fire departments — if you’ve already got the channels you can talk to law enforcement on, there’s no reason to do this. Nothing we say on our radio channels is secret.”

In 2016, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a report with considerations public safety agencies should make when deciding whether or not to encrypt radio systems. It instructed agencies to answer one major question: “Does the cost and effort related to the implementation and management of encryption outweigh the risks associated with the exposure of sensitive information?”

In the case of wildfire operations, Fennessy believes that the public is a crucial partner in emergency response, and that withholding information that could be useful to everyone is counterproductive. He is in the process of meeting with California leaders to advocate for greater transparency in fire communication radio channels.

“The public is our partner, yet we squirrel away all this information just for us that I believe would be useful to everybody,” he said.

Watch Duty is now setting its sights beyond wildfire monitoring, envisioning a future where the app tackles a wider range of geospatial disasters, with a particular focus on flood zones. Mills is actively inviting public agencies to collaborate, leveraging their expertise and resources to enhance the app’s ability to deliver accurate and timely public safety information.

“We purposely didn’t put fire in the name of the company. It’s about citizens on watch duty,” said Mills. “The sky’s the limit. We just have to learn how it works in different areas.”

This article first appeared in Government Technology, sister publication to Industry Insider — California.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey.