Public hits the airwaves at GOTA event

Round Rock safety officer Greg Fuqua (left) speaks with David Toby during some down time at the Get On The Air event at River Ranch Park in Liberty Hill June 25. (Mike Schoeffel Photo)

Round Rock safety officer Greg Fuqua (left) speaks with David Toby during some down time at the Get On The Air event at River Ranch Park in Liberty Hill June 25. (Mike Schoeffel Photo)

By Mike Schoeffel

Jim Kinter turns the knob on the HAM radio, swimming through a sea of jam-packed frequencies. There’s a wall of static, some high-pitched squealing, a string of jumbled words uttered from somewhere out there. Then, finally, a clear transmission:

“Whiskey One November Victor Tango.”

And again.

“Whiskey One November Victor Tango.”

“That’s their call number,” says an excited Kinter, the assistant emergency coordinator for Broadband-Hamnet. “He‘s up in Vermont. That’s him saying ‘Hey I’m available. Call me.’”

And so it went from 1 to 5 p.m. on June 25, during which time the public was invited out to River Ranch County Park in Liberty Hill for an opportunity to try out amateur radio transmissions. The event was dubbed GOTA (Get On The Air), and was hosted by the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and Williamson County Emergency Services. It simulated a doomsday situation in which internet and cell phone communication are reduced to nil, thus leaving HAM radio communication as the most viable means of contacting surrounding areas.

“Basically we’re imagining the worst case scenario,” said amateur radio coordinator Ken Malgren. “The circumstance in which it came to this is so extreme that it’s hard to imagine it happening. But it’s a good opportunity for the public and amateur radio operators to get a better understanding of how we can work together.”

So what sort of disaster could feasibly take place in central Texas that might require use of HAM radio?

Scott Parker, director of emergency communications, has the answer.

“Our biggest threat is probably weather,” he said. “Wildfires, storms, flooding. We are also on a fault line, so there’s always the possibility of an earthquake. The threats pretty much run the gamut, so it’s best to be prepared.”

The main objective for the weekend, Parker said, was to make contact with locations in central Texas, across the country, and on an international level. Throughout the three-day event, connections were made with locales are far flung as Seattle and British Columbia.

All-told, the arrangement — which included emergency vehicles, radio trucks, communication tents, and other vital equipment — took about two days to set up and become operational. It was funded entirely by a grant, Malgren said, so taxpayer dollars weren’t utilized.

Liberty Hill residents Nancy and Marvin Morse were two members of the public who attended the event. They had an opportunity to learn about HAM radio connections from Kinter, from the safe confines of a tab, air-conditioned tent.

“It was very informative,” said Melvin. “I didn’t realize there was all this interconnectivity between amateur radio operators all across the world.”

“We live just around the corner,” said Nancy. “We like to stay informed with what’s going on in the area.”

The event was also an opportunity for Randy Bell, senior director of parks for Williamson County, to put the new River Ranch Park on display.

The 1,011-acre park is not yet open to the public, but Bell said plans are in the works to make it operational by the fall of 2017.

“The first phase of development will hopefully include some RV campsites, some walk-in campsites, and some primitive campsites,” he said. “We’re also working on an equestrian center with equestrian trails, and also hiking trails and a day-use area.”

Most of the development will take place in the southern third of the park, Bell said, while the northern two-thirds are expected to remain untouched. There will be river access to the South San Gabriel River in the northeast section of the park, but it will be separate from the development, “so you’ll have to hike your way there,” as Bell put it.

“I’d like to say that this is going to be the state park of Williamson County someday,” he said. “We’re developing for that type of experience.”

At any rate, the park was an excellent host for the GOTA event, and much was learned by the public, ARES, and emergency services alike.

“This is an annual event, we do it every June,” said Parker. “We set up all this equipment so we can get out of the shack and into the wild and make sure we can do what we’re cast to do.”