Amateur radio remains part of the emergency communications system, but another appeal for the users is being able to do a lot of things with different gadgets.
“Throw a piece of wire up a tree and you can talk to Japan,” said Tom Mandera of Helena, a member of the Capital City Amateur Radio Club as he tried to aim a handheld at a low-orbit satellite Saturday.
Mandera and other ham radio operators are spending much of the weekend as part of a nationwide “field day” held to showcase and practice radio operation.
During the 24-hour period, from noon Saturday to noon today, the hams are trying to make contact with as many other operators as possible from their temporary setup behind the old red schoolhouse on Sierra Road, just east of Interstate 15.
The hams operate under the credo, “When all else fails,” to note that their technology can provide emergency communication even others fail. That could happen in an earthquake or other event that disrupts such fundamental tools as police radios and mobile phone networks.
“There’s been a number of examples of these high-tech systems going out and they’ve fallen back on ham radio,” said Bob Solomon, emergency systems coordinator for the group.
All the ham radios need is enough electricity to power themselves, with no network except the airwaves.
The Lewis and Clark County disaster and emergency operations center has a ham radio unit, with the plan that one of the club’s members could operate it and receive emergency communications from operators in the field.
The group has also helped out at events like the Governor’s Cup race and long-distance races in the Elkhorn Mountains.
Ham radio hobbyists strive for ever more distant and noteworthy contacts with other uses. Many, like Solomon, have thick binders of cards received (by regular mail) from contacts around the world.
At some special events, groups of operators get together and, using a special call sign for that event, try to contact as many people as possible. Solomon’s collection includes contact with such a group at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and with an operator at a 2012 event in German marking 60 years of priesthood of Pope Benedict XVI.
Closer to home, Solomon said, the Helena group operated a tower atop Mount Belmont, enabling easy communication with Lincoln and Great Falls.
Users also bounce their signals off the sky itself — or different layers of the ionosphere, the hams say.
While the technology has century-old fundamentals, it is also benefiting from new developments.
While some users still use Morse code, most now use their voices. Lynn Wagner was operating a radio with a laptop that showed where radio activity was happening on a broad range of frequencies. Operators can also send small amounts of data, including pictures or video (slow-scan TV, they call it).
And to help direct their antenna, Mandera was pointing it in a direction he determined by using a mobile phone app detecting the 50 or so ham satellites that spin the globe.
Mandera had another gadget to power most of the demonstration: a set of solar panels, which he said could run at about 55 watts.
“Basically, we’re able to operate the whole weekend and not have to listen to a generator,” he said.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/IR_SanjayT