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.