Lifeline for emergency information
While many people would find it stressful to listen to a police scanner all day and night, for self-described “scanner junkies” Elise Walker and Joe Toledo, knowing what’s going on in their community — and keeping others informed — is actually reassuring.
Six years ago, Walker started the Okanogan County And Methow Valley Topics of Interest Facebook page, which has become a strategic lifeline during wildfires and other emergencies for many people. When it’s not fire season, people turn to the page for general information about community events or lost-and-found dogs.
For Walker, whose father listened to a scanner around the clock, scanner static is natural background noise. A certified 911 dispatcher who worked as an emergency medical technician and a nurse for 12 years, Walker also brings professional knowledge to the Topics of Interest page.
Walker and her husband raise goats, cows, chickens and other fowl and grow alfalfa on a farm near Okanogan. Toledo, who joined Walker as an administrator about six months after the page launched, lives in Winthrop.
Walker still recalls how helpless she felt listening to the scanner during the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. As she heard dispatchers describe where the fire was, she found herself yelling at the scanner, “Get them out! Open that gate!”
She vowed to do something. She and a partner started the private Topics of Interest Facebook group the following June.
After the partner left to start another page, Walker asked Toledo to help out. Since then, three other people have joined as administrators. They read every comment before posting it to be sure it meets their strict standards. Group rules don’t allow members to share anything from the page.
They’re mindful that providing detailed location information could endanger first responders or the public. “We avoid creating panic. We have proven ourselves to be trustworthy,” Walker said.
Although some realms of Facebook are notorious for spreading misinformation, Walker, Toledo and their co-administrators say they’re scrupulous about what they post. Much of their information comes directly from dispatch calls on the scanner. They report the initial call and update it as more information comes in. “We have a hard-and-fast rule that we don’t operate on rumors,” Walker said.
Walker is proud of how they used the page to assist with evacuations during the 2015 Okanogan Complex Fire, which started a couple of months after the page launched. People messaged her directly with minute-by-minute information, asking her to re-route traffic so they could get their livestock out safely. “We redirected traffic through Facebook,” Walker said.
After the Okanogan Complex, Walker was invited to a post-fire conference of first responders, where she described how they’d used social media to disseminate detailed information that helped with evacuations.
Walker and Toledo are astounded by how the group has grown. They now have more than 14,300 members, from every state and half a dozen countries, although people need to have some connection to the Methow or Okanogan County to join. Almost 1,000 people joined during this summer’s fires.
The other page administrators are Darla Hussey, of Twisp; Richard Epperson, of Malott; and Misty Benzing, of Oroville.
Co-existence with official sources
The Topics of Interest page exists alongside official sources of information, including the alert system run by Okanogan County Emergency Management, which notifies people by phone, text or email about evacuations, fire status and other emergencies. But Toledo said many people get their information from social media first, even before a text message or phone call.
Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall said some social media sites make his job more difficult, although he didn’t comment specifically about the Topics of Interest page.
During the height of the fires this summer, Goodall’s office and the incident management team public information officers (PIOs) spent most of their time dispelling misinformation that people gleaned on Facebook, Goodall said. “The amount of man-hours to combat rumors — every minute of the day, the PIOs are on the phone,” he said.
Facebook groups think they’re helping, but some information is misleading, Goodall said. Imagery with heat signals taken by satellites can be off by 20 miles. Some groups are more interested in being first than being accurate, he said.
Toledo agreed. Some groups post elaborate charts to back up their information, but it doesn’t mean it’s factual, he said. “I would never want Goodall’s job. This is my hobby, which I’ve turned into getting people information,” he said.
Walker wishes they could coordinate directly with Emergency Management to ensure that information on social media is accurate. “Like it or not, social media is the outlet,” she said.
The Topics of Interest administrators assert that their strict protocols keep them from contributing to disinformation. All their posts come from official sources, and they’re selective about what they include. They direct readers to links where they can find the original information.
They omit personal information, specific addresses and medical calls. “It’s not a competition — it’s getting the information out there,” Toledo said.
Toledo works the graveyard shift at Pardners Mini Market in Winthrop. When he gets off work at 1 a.m., he monitors the scanner as he unwinds. “I’m a geek,” he said.
He tracks several hundred frequencies on two scanners and can recognize the tones and frequencies by pitch. “It can get hectic,” particularly after a lightning storm with numerous fire starts, he said.
Both Walker and Toledo sleep with the scanner on. They go back to sleep if the dispatch call doesn’t concern the general public.
Toledo, who was on vacation when the Cedar Creek Fire erupted, felt bad he wasn’t in the valley to help inform people, so he monitored the fire’s progress before turning in for the night. “I would rather be informed. I can’t live in a news vacuum. Pretty much since 9/11, I have to know what’s going on,” he said.
Despite that compulsion, Toledo admitted that listening to multiple scanners at once can be overwhelming. “After the initial attack of a fire, it drains you,” he said.
Walker also devotes a lot of time in the wee hours. Readers submit comments all day long (the in-box is always at its maximum, which is 99-plus), which she saves to review overnight.
The administrators carefully vet all information for accuracy and the source, and don’t post anything they deem “political,” bullying or derogatory. Walker blocks commenters who appear suspicious.
They’re strict about their independence. They don’t accept donations and pay all expenses out of their own pockets, Toledo said. “I don’t need money to do this,” he said. “We do this out of community involvement and concern for our fellow humans.”
“It’s not about recognition,” Walker said. “I feel the need to help someone else. It gives me the greatest satisfaction and pleasure when I can. If there’s something you need to know, we have it.”
“I’ve had people offer to buy me pizza for the rest of my life, because I give them information,” Toledo said. “It’s a fun hobby.”