Decades ago, aficionados of local police and rescue calls had to buy their own scanners to listen in on emergency response. Now, we have social media. And in the central Shenandoah Valley, one man in particular has attracted quite a following. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
Most days, you can find Tony Williams glued to his police scanner. He's more than just a receiver, though; he's a conduit. Williams runs a Facebook page called Rockingham County First Alert, where he posts about fires, accidents, and other incidents as they happen.
TONY WILLIAMS: I don't post EMS calls.
That's Emergency Medical Services.
WILLIAMS: There's a few reasons for that. One is, you know, privacy. Another is, if I was posting EMS calls, I would never stop, because there's a lot. There's a lot of things I don't post.
Williams took over the Facebook page six years ago, when its founder was ready to focus on other pursuits. Back then, it had about 12,000 followers, he said. Now, it has more than 44,000. And those followers are super engaged – posts regularly get dozens, sometimes hundreds, of comments from folks asking for updates, offering their own information about a situation, or just saying prayers.
WILLIAMS: I've had a lot of people tell me that, that they follow just my page, because I give them the most honest and trustworthy information. Before I even post it, if I do, I sit and listen to actually what's going on, because a lot of times when something is dispatched, that doesn't mean that's actually what's happening. They can only go by what the caller is telling them, and then of course that has to be relayed from the call taker to the dispatch.
He's been a scanner aficionado since he was about eight, when he would listen to police calls with his grandmother.
WILLIAMS: Sometimes if it was something local like a fire, she would actually load me into the car with her, and we would go check it out!
One fan, Alyssa Miller of Timberville, said Williams's posts are often more detailed than the local news. She's been following the page for three or four years, since a family member shared a post about a high speed chase.
ALYSSA MILLER: On Rockingham First Alert, he had the roads, and he was updating like every 10 minutes, like the police stopped the chase, they caught him, this is what happened … real time updates, I loved that.
Miller keeps an eye out for traffic alerts in particular, because she's on the road a good bit. She also appreciates that Williams keeps things civil.
MILLER: He's friendly; he doesn't allow people to argue on the page – he cuts that off. He'll delete the post and repost it if it gets to be too much. And he cuts out all politics. It's strictly the information that you want; it's nothing that you don't want to see … it's just straight to the point.
Williams says his busiest day – and also the day he got the most new followers – was October 17 last year, when a small commercial center in Harrisonburg exploded. He woke up to hundreds of people messaging him to ask what had happened.
WILLIAMS: So I turned the scanner on and it's going crazy. And I'm sitting there trying to compose exactly what's going on, where is it happening? … The interesting thing is, in my mind, common sense told me it was obviously probably a gas leak, even though I had lots of people telling me, "there's no way it's a gas leak, you don't have proof," this that and the other.
Two days later, fire investigators did confirm that the explosion was caused by a natural gas leak. But Williams's step out of his normal M.O. to offer his own speculation still had some blowback.
WILLIAMS: A lot of people were telling me that I was giving out information without proof, without there being an official statement. I felt, with that, I didn't need one; that was the only thing that made any logical sense, was a gas leak. And I got that information because, Columbia, I think it was Columbia Gas that was also there that same day. So that told me, well, it must be a gas leak. And it was later determined that yes, that was the cause.
In a time of increasing mistrust of news and media outlets, Williams is an outlier. He's just one person, without any editorial oversight, posting information and interacting with commenters. And he does all of this as a volunteer. He suffers from severe fibromyalgia, which prevents him from working, so he runs the Facebook page to give back to the community. And more than 44,000 followers seem to trust him.