Meet the Florida Forest Service Communication Tech; Tom Timmons has seen a lot of changes over the years

OKEECHOBEE — Generally, when one thinks of the Florida Forest Service, he thinks of park rangers or fire fighters, but there are many other “behind the scenes” men and women who work together to keep things operating smoothly. Communications Specialist III Tom Timmons, AKA The Radio Guy, is one of those men. “The Florida Forest Service is a radio-based service,” said Mr. Timmons, “and my job is to build and maintain that service.”

Mr. Timmons has a long history with technology — beginning in the Army. His first tour in the service was in the infantry. He said they were offering a $2,500 cash bonus to anyone who completed infantry training, and he was 20 years old. That was a lot of money back then, especially to a 20-year-old kid. He served his first tour in Hawaii. He and his wife Diane were married there, and their daughter Jennifer was born there.

During his second tour, he went to signal school in Augusta, Ga. for training and then stayed on as an instructor. Their son Jeremy was born in Georgia. When he separated from the military, he continued working there as a civilian in the same systems, because he already had the clearance, and it was difficult for them to find instructors with the clearance levels needed. He was teaching people to repair complex, classified communication systems — both voice and data, he explained.

When he was ready for a change, he got a job in Washington, DC working on the exact same equipment for the FBI. It was used by the White House and all branches of the government. For a while, Mr. Timmons had the same security clearance as the Vice President, he said.

A few years later, he went to work for some start up companies. This was around the time the internet was gearing up. “I made the first connection to the internet for the company I was working for in 1990 or ’91 when the internet was brand new so our engineers could get on,” he said. His boss was not Al Gore, he explained, but was a man who helped design the internet. It was a federal system called Darpanet, which is the Defense Advanced Research Center. The fellow he worked for was a retired Air Force colonel, he said, who had owned and operated the Darpanet. “So, regardless of what you may have heard, Al Gore did not design the internet. It was an extension of Darpanet,” he said.

“I was one of the internet pioneers,” he said. His first computer was a tiny little Mac that held about 50K. Everything was text-based back then. There were no graphics, he explained. He recalls when the first cell phones came out, and he told a friend, some day people will be able to use these like computers, but he just couldn’t figure out how the keyboard would work.

”I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” he said, and I’ve been privileged to be on the front edges of a lot of it, and now, I work with antique technology,” he laughed. His job as a communication specialist III requires him to know how radios work, and he said most people don’t use radios anymore so it’s getting harder and harder to find people who understand how they work. Most of the people who do this job are men in their 60s or older, he said. You almost have to have a ham radio license to do it.

Florida Forest Service Communication Specialist III Tom Timmons demonstrates his skills repairing radios. Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble.

Every truck, bulldozer, transport and person carries a radio. Mr. Timmons explained, he has a set of radio repeaters around the area. Each county has one. Basically, it’s like a base station radio that you call into, and it repeats the signal and sends it back out. He has a series of five repeaters to maintain plus a control station that is like a repeater. He also supports the wiring for the computers, handles anything technical, installs light bars, sirens, strobe lights, etc. When a new truck comes in, it is his job to install the strobe lights, light bars, all the radios, and if it is for another county, there are other radios to add and sometimes even computers.

Mr. Timmons often teams up with other men from Belle Glade, Orlando, Lakeland, Calloosahatchee and Ft. Myers. They all have the same job, but each have different strengths, he explained. One might have better eye sight and be able to see the tiny wires in some equipment. They all help each other and they do a lot of brain storming. They have gotten to know each other over the years, and have become friends.

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Timmons’ work is done before and after a fire, but if there is a catastrophic failure on a bulldozer during a fire, he is out there working on it during the fire too. He is qualified to work on the fire line. A couple years ago, when he was 62, he even took and passed the PT test just for something to do.

In December, he will retire after eight years with the Florida Forest Service. He and his wife will be exploring small town America in their 45-foot diesel pusher RV, he said. He plans to create a website where he can write about what they see and learn during their adventures.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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