In risky environments, where threats are unpredictable and the quality of information about threats is variable, all individuals face two fundamental challenges: balancing vigilance against other activities, and determining when to respond to warning signals. The solution to both is to obtain continuous estimates of background risk, enabling vigilance to be concentrated during the riskiest periods and informing about the likely cost of ignoring warnings. Human surveillance organizations routinely produce such estimates, frequently derived from indirect cues. Here we show that vigilant individuals in an animal society (the pied babbler, Turdoides bicolor) perform a similar role. We ask (i) whether, in the absence of direct predator threats, pied babbler sentinels react to indirect information associated with increased risk and whether they communicate this information to group mates; (ii) whether group mates use this information to adjust their own vigilance, and whether this influences foraging success; and (iii) whether information provided by sentinels reduces the likelihood of inappropriate responses to alarm calls. Using playback experiments, we show that: (i) sentinels reacted to indirect predator cues (in the form of heterospecific alarm calls) by giving graded surveillance calls; (ii) foragers adjusted their vigilance in reaction to changes in surveillance calls, with substantial effects on foraging success; and (iii) foragers reduced their probability of responding to alarm calls when surveillance calls indicated lowered risk. These results demonstrate that identifying attacks as they occur is only part of vigilance: equally important is continuous surveillance providing information necessary for individuals to make decisions about their own vigilance and evasive action. Moreover, they suggest that a major benefit of group living is not only the increased likelihood of detecting threats, but a marked improvement in the quality of information available to each individual.