As smoke loomed above The Geysers, appearing perilously close to northern Sonoma County hills, Geyserville Fire Capt. Joe Stewart pulled out his phone. He blasted a message to about 554 followers:

"Be advised that smoke is visible in Northern Sonoma County. This smoke is from the 16 Complex in Colusa County," he typed, referring to the wildfires burning about 35 miles away.

The town crier has returned, in digital clothes. And local public safety agencies are taking up their technological swords to build followings through social media and other online tools.

"People aren't checking the Geyserville fire department website every day but they are checking Facebook and Twitter," Stewart said.

Stewart has been posting messages on Facebook and Twitter regularly for about two years, spearheading social media use among police and fire agencies in the county.

While some agencies just now are dipping their toes into Facebook and Twitter, with a hefty dose of skepticism, many have embraced more straightforward, and less interactive online tools such as the message system Nixle.

"It's a YouTube generation that appreciates learning through their eyes," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey. "They expect regular picture images of what we're doing in the public on a regular basis."

The Petaluma Police Department issued its first tweet in 2009: "TEST: drinking coffee and testing twitter."

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office first Twitter post Dec. 22, 2011, warned residents about telephone scams.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office started in the spring blasting press releases on arrests and alerts about mountain lion sightings through Nixle. The Santa Rosa Police Department launched a Facebook page Aug. 23.

"Social media is a misnomer," said Ginger Hamilton, administrative assistant with the Windsor Fire Protection District. "It's not only social anymore, it is really a tool."

About two years ago, Hamilton approached her colleagues and presented her ideas for how they should start using Facebook.

It was a hard sell, despite a folder full of research and a bullet-point list of advantages, she said.

"I came up with a lot of opposition to it in the beginning," Hamilton said.

Now, Hamilton starts each day thinking about what to say to the district's 322 followers.

"Our flags are at half-staff today, honoring the service of CHP Officer Kenyon Youngstrom, who passed away last night," she posted Thursday.

Her most recent posts include the local fire team's return from fighting wildfires, information about child product recalls and fire safety tips.

Acceptance of social media as a necessary tool of business has been slow among public safety agencies compared to the soaring use of social media for personal use.

But that's changing.

"It is generational, this is something that the more tenured members of law enforcement didn't grow up with," said Lt. Tom Le Veque, detective bureau commander with the Arcadia Police Department near Los Angeles.

Le Veque and two colleagues from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department run a three-day social media course for law enforcement agencies through the California Peace Officers' Association.

One of the most common questions is who will speak on the department's behalf, a concern Le Veque tries to diminish.

"In reality, our officers and deputies are doing that every day on the street," Le Veque said.

Santa Rosa Police Department Lt. Craig Schwartz modeled his department's Facebook page on Arcadia's page. But setting it up was not as simple as he had thought.

Schwartz encountered hurdles such as deciding how his department moderate comments and making sure they keep a paper trail, a requirement for government agencies that doesn't easily translate to the Web.

Other questions include whether to ask an officer's permission before he posts a photograph of a person on the job.

"I've encountered some skepticism, and that is because it is new to us," said Schwartz, who has been with the department about 20 years. "For younger employees, it doesn't faze them at all."

A woman recently posted concerns about burglaries in her neighborhood, and included her name, address and phone number.

Schwartz passed her information to the sergeant in charge of her neighborhood. A family member apparently suggested she remove her personal information.

"I've discovered a lot of complexities as I've waded into this," Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that Facebook in particular will help him address requests from the residents who want a clearer picture of what Police Department officers and staff do.

Just over 47 percent of law enforcement agencies use social media for community outreach and citizen engagement, according to a 2011 survey, said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager with the based International Association of Chiefs of Police.

About 800 agencies from 49 states responded to the poll. Facebook is the most popular platform in the United States, she said.

Researchers found great variation in strategies. Some agencies focus on leveraging social media to solve crimes. "That (strategy) is going to look very different from an agency that is using social media for traffic alerts and Amber alerts," Kolb said.

Investigators have long mined MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other sites to gather information about suspects.

Law enforcement agencies have been faster to embrace Nixle, a San Francisco-based web company that primarily serves as broadcasting platform for announcements and alerts. Caution is "an occupational hazard" for police who are trained to scrutinize situations and people, Schwartz said.

Nixle was launched in 2007 as a hyper-local news and information service, more akin to Patch.com and EveryBlock.com, said Eric Liu, Nixle's CEO.

But Liu said they quickly realized that generating news was not profitable. Their first police client was the Chula Vista Police Department in San Diego County, which signed up in December 2008.

"It took us two months and a dozen meetings to convince them," said Liu. "Police departments tend to be the least trusting people in the world. But if you fast forward three years, we have a dozen agencies that approach us every week. When you've earned the trust, you have it."

Sonoma County Sheriff's lieutenants were recently trained to blast press releases and alerts through Nixle, Twitter and Facebook, as well as the Sheriff's Office website.

"As law enforcement we are the number one news driver in the community," McCaffrey said. "We appreciate the collaboration of the news media, but to also have a direct venue to talk to the community is a positive thing."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.