Most people become aware that something is happening in the area when they hear sirens or notice Cal Fire aircraft flying in their vicinity. (Cal Fire aircraft that fly over and don't return or circle are probably going to an incident somewhere else, and you can generally ignore them.) These aren't the only indications of things going on, of course, and there are plenty of times when fire engines go to the scene of some incident without using sirens. The sections below document other ways to be notified of incidents in our area - via email, twitter, and reverse 911 - if you want more sources of information. For now, though, let's assume you hear sirens or see a circling Cal Fire plane and want to know more.
A good first place to try is firescan.net. (There is a document that provides a tutorial on using firescan.net if you need that help.) Bring up the list of dispatches for Santa Cruz County Fire: http://www.firescan.net/cgi-bin/chindex.php?ch=0. In our area, most fires and medical aid incidents result in a dispatch there, and you can quickly find it and learn the basics.
A few incidents - mostly medical aid calls and vehicle accidents in Santa Clara County, on the north side of Summit Road - will not result in a dispatch from the Santa Cruz side. In those cases, I try Santa Clara County Fire on firescan.net: http://www.firescan.net/cgi-bin/chindex.php?ch=3. That shows dispatches for most incidents that don't make it to Santa Cruz County.
If neither of those sources indicates there is a dispatch at the time, then in all likelihood the incident is a traffic stop or non-injury accident and you heard sirens from a law enforcement vehicle. Of course it is possible that a more serious law enforcement action of some sort is going on, as well, but that is unlikely. At this time some of the scanner links mentioned in another document are the only source of law enforcement information.
Many people don't bother following medical aid calls or vehicle accidents, though the latter can be serious problems for traffic if they involve many vehicles, block major roads, or involve fatalities. In such cases it might be a good idea follow for a while, but a road that is closed for a long period generally needs to be announced somewhere and can then be ignored, rather than followed for specific details.
Assuming you find your incident on one of the above sources, you can follow it for up to 30 minutes from the initial dispatch right from the first firescan.net page. Generally, in our area, the command traffic for fires is on CZU Local or SCU Local. Which frequency depends on where the fire actually is, so you may have to change what you are monitoring. Listen for engines to indicate they are switching to another frequency and switch to if you can.
Once you have a good handle on which frequency an incident is going to be run on, you can keep a window open on that frequency on firescan.net to hear what is happening. (It helps to take notes and track times. See the above mentioned tutorial for help with firescan.net specifics.)
It can also help to monitor twitter as well, particularly if it is a large fire. See the twitter feeds listed in Internet Based Information Sources.
Also, sometimes it happens that a fire is in a place which causes radio reception for firescan.net to be poor. In that case you can try one or another of the online scanner resources linked in the Internet Based Information Sources document. They may or may not be any better, but their antennas are in different locations, so they might be.
Very rarely an incident is close enough to me that you can step outside and see it directly. In such a case, though, you may learn a lot, particularly about a fire. The size of a smoke plume is important - big is bad, or course. The direction the smoke is moving can also be useful, as it may indicate which way a fire will be burning. Smoke color is helpful too: dark smoke means heavy fuels and a fire that is burning strongly. White or light colored smoke tends to indicate that a fire is burning down. These aren't hard and fast rules, but they are indications of progress.
Finally, a caution: never drive to the scene of an incident. You will only get in the way of emergency personnel working there, and put yourself at risk. Follow emergencies via scanners or online, rather than getting in the way.
Of course, no one has to do any of these things. Most of us get by all the time without knowing the specifics of the emergencies in our area. Others make use of news media or neighborhood related groups to get our news of this kind. The 95033talk email list is a fine source for much of it if you are interested, for example.
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