Keeping watch

Disabled man makes sure fire info is current

Volunteer Ernie Foss mans Butte County’s online public-safety scanner—the only such resource of its kind in Northern California.

Volunteer Ernie Foss mans Butte County’s online public-safety scanner—the only such resource of its kind in Northern California.

photo courtesy of ernie foss

Emergency info:
Check out the Butte County Fire Safe Council’s public-safety scanner at BCFSC is seeking additional volunteers to man the site. Call 877-0984 for more info.

“I’ve listened to scanners since I was a teenager,” said 55-year-old Oroville resident Ernie Foss. “One of the things I like about scanners is you get a better feel for what’s going on in your community. You get better insight into your neighborhood.”

Foss should know. His love of monitoring emergency radio communications was key to getting the information he needed to gain quick access to a crime scene, fire or accident when he worked, in his 20s, as a freelance news photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Foss later “had kids and got into retail management,” but he “still loved listening to the scanner.”

Fittingly, in late May, Foss—who relocated with his wife to Butte County from the Bay Area nine months ago—became one of the texting “voices” behind the Butte County Fire Safe Council’s online public-safety scanner, which enables county residents to access up-to-date information on local wildfire activity via an online scanner and a chat room manned with knowledgeable, trained volunteers.

The website, started in 2005 by a Magalia man named Tom Miller (who still serves as one of its operators), was taken under the umbrella of the council this past October. It was relied upon greatly during the 2008 Humboldt fire, reports Fire Safe Council Executive Director Calli-Jane Burch, and now has about 3,000 visitors per month.

“In the [recent] Skyway fire, residents were able to go on their phones and … get information on the fire while they were stuck in traffic,” Burch added. “In the [recent] Palermo fire, people were able to alleviate some of their concerns about livestock in the area and where the fire was spreading.”

Foss describes his 10-to-12-hour-a-day, usually seven-days-a-week job monitoring the scanner and chat room as “perfect.” In addition to his lengthy scanner-monitoring experience, Foss has served as an Internet relay chat operator for more than 20 years for widely known AM radio show Coast to Coast.

Foss suffers from third-stage LLE—lower-extremity lymphedema—a disabling condition he contracted as the result of a severe bacterial infection. It has caused his body to swell to the point where his skeletal frame has become contorted. While Foss occasionally uses a wheelchair or a sit-in walker, he is bedridden much of the time.

“In my late 20s, early 30s, I started swelling up. … It’s a bummer,” he offered matter-of-factly, before adding, “My legs don’t work so well, but my brain is super-duper.”

Foss monitors scanner activity for fire emergencies from his bed using either the speakers on his laptop computer or “on the headset, if my wife is watching TV.”

He routinely gets chat-room inquiries from people who smell or see smoke in their neighborhood or have perhaps just seen a firefighting plane take off from the Chico Municipal Airport.

Foss accesses a “plethora of fire-related websites” to find answers to people’s questions, thus either allaying unnecessary fears or being able to give advice on what to do next. “In the event of a real emergency, we could be used as part of an evacuation plan,” he said, “[working in conjunction with local agencies] to tell people which roads are open or closed, or should you shelter in place or should you leave.”

One of the scanner site’s “regulars,” he said, is the wife of a CalFire firefighter who anxiously checks in whenever her husband is out in the field to get updated on fire conditions. “We just calm her down,” said Foss, “and say, ‘I’m sure he’s fine.’ It makes her feel better.

“About a month ago, there was a vehicle fire that spread to vegetation near The Skyway in Paradise,” Foss said, “and the CHP shut down The Skyway. We had people come into the channel [scanner-site chat-room], and we could tell them why the road was closed.”

Whenever there is a fire in Butte County, said Foss, “We will take the address given by the Fire Department and Google it,” and post a map of the location on the scanner website.

Foss said the website is up 24 hours per day, “except for probably a brief period of time in the morning” when routine questions can still be answered by an automated response system called NetBot.

“We try to act as a clearing house for the information in a fashion that people can understand and utilize,” said Foss. “It’s basically just devoting your ear and being willing to step up and step in if something’s happening. It’s my community.”