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He alerted people to the Thousand Oaks shooting, then warned of the California fires that came next

He alerted people to the Thousand Oaks shooting, then warned of the California fires that came next
Many Ventura County residents who learned about the approaching wind-driven Woolsey fire relied on the @VCScanner Twitter account of Thomas Gorden, who has amassed a following of thousands by sending out alerts while listening to police scanners. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For the last 10 years, the sound of police scanners has served as Thomas Gorden’s preferred soundtrack.

He doesn’t pay attention to every bit of information broadcast from the handful of devices he owns. But there are certain words and conversations he’s learned to key in on.

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On Nov. 7, a call went out that someone had been shot outside Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. Then another. Gorden listened to the drone of 911 calls picking up in the background. He realized there was nothing typical about this shooting.

“When [officers] went inside and said they’re going to need a lot of ambulances, that’s when I realized this was a mass shooting,” said Gorden, 22.

Gorden tweeted from @VCScanner — his Twitter account that has amassed a following of thousands — alerting many in the area to the shooting, including the first Los Angeles Times reporter on the scene.

Jess Weihe had just been about to close her laptop when she saw Gorden's all-caps tweet about the shooting.

She stayed awake for several hours, anxiously refreshing her feed for more updates. Many in Thousand Oaks shared a similar story of a sleepless night after seeing the tweet that rattled their community.

“Early on, the not knowing is the scariest part,” said Weihe, who lives in Newbury Park.

Within 24 hours, another disaster hit Ventura County. First one fire, then a second.

Gorden heard the call for the Hill fire in Ventura County. As that blaze grew, the Woolsey fire started to burn in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. As it headed toward Oak Park, Gorden began tweeting. At one point, he worked for 48 hours straight without sleep. He didn’t slow down until this weekend.

“A lot of people are saying that they found my information more helpful than what officials were putting out,” he said, “or were able to evacuate earlier than other people who evacuated Oak Park after all the gridlock.”

Gorden, who lives with his parents in Simi Valley, got his first scanner 10 years ago and started the @VCScanner account in 2011. His most recent job was installing chair lifts along residential staircases, but he left his job in August due to chronic pain.

Sometimes, he heads out to a crime or fire scene and shoots video, which he sells to news television stations. Video he shot after the Borderline shooting made it onto CNN, he said.

At home, the scanners are always on.

The first wildfire he actively covered was 2013’s Springs fire in Ventura County. But it was last year, during the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, that people started paying more attention.

“I learned a lot from that one,” he said. “People need to leave before there’s an evacuation order. You can’t rely on authorities to always get you out on time.”

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In the case of the fires in Ventura County, Gorden said he heard from people who saw his tweets about 30 to 45 minutes before the official evacuation orders.

Many said they relied on the account when they could smell smoke or see a fire but hadn’t yet received an emergency alert.

Cal Lutheran University senior Annabelle Worrall was in shock from the shooting, which took the life of Justin Meek, who graduated from the school in May.

She was sitting across from her roommate at a table when she got a Twitter notification from @VCScanner about a wildfire. They couldn't believe it.

“Everyone was still freaked out from that day,” said Worrall, 21.

Worrall went to her house in Westlake Village, and a few hours later, she had to evacuate again. She eventually ended up in Pasadena.

“We’re just exhausted. I’m exhausted,” she said.

Police scanners aren’t foolproof methods for learning about emergencies, and authorities caution against reporting on what’s overheard. There are rules Gorden abides by when it comes to sharing information. Tactics that could compromise the safety of police officers, for example, are something he never touches.

“Certain things shouldn’t be tweeted,” he said.

Gorden’s @VCScanner account following grew from 6,000 to 26,000 after the Thomas fire and has doubled to 55,000 since this month’s back-to-back episodes.

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