MONTROSE – Last week, thousands of people spent 24 hours competing to communicate with the most people outside their area. Montrose residents were talking with people in Maine and Florida, with captains out at sea and pilots flying over the country.
But these competitors were not on their cell phones or connected to the Internet. They were using a more primitive, yet highly effective, method of communicating – ham radios.
"It's an opportunity to get together and learn from each other," said Bill Bear, a Paonia member of the Montrose Amateur Radio Club who is known on the radio as KC0QXX.
Amateur radio, or ham radio, clubs are located throughout the world. Although it is mostly a hobby, ham radio licensees also help as weather spotters, with emergency and recreational communications, and are even on standby as a military communication auxiliary.
On June 23-24, club members from around the country got an opportunity to use their equipment and practice their skills during an annual "Field Day" event, sponsored by the American Radio Relay League.
Members of the Montrose Amateur Radio Club started setting up several tall antennae on top of Sunset Mesa on Saturday morning. They parked their communication trailer and erected several tents. At noon, they switched on their radios to begin the 24-hour competition.
The members, who work in teams of two, an operator and a logger, aim to collected the greatest number of points. The results of the competition aren't released until later in the year, but the Montrose club is usually in the top 50, according to the club.
Each club gets one point for a voice communication with another radio, while bonus points are given for such things as reaching a radio outside the United States, Bear said. Two points are given for a continuous wave (CW) – or Morse code – communication.
Member John Nelson of Nucla first learned Morse code in 1959 and now, to him, the series of dots and dashes roll together to form fluent words and sentences. His fingers work just as fast in his responses.
"It's fascinating cause anyone can talk, but it takes skill to tap out a message," he said.
On Saturday, Nelson was using a Morse code paddle, which allows him to tap both dots and dashes separately, but on a single device.
Using the device, Nelson taps out "K-0-I-T-T-2-A-C-O" onto the airwaves.
The K0ITT 2A CO is the club's call signal, assigned and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The call signal identifies the station during transmission and conveys its group, class, location and number of transmitters.
While Nelson taps out the club's call signal, Olathe resident Paul Stutzman records the incoming messages as part of the competition.
"It's a more primitive way of communicating, but it's efficient," Nelson said.
Up until just recently, an amateur radio license – which is required to operate legally on the airwaves – required some knowledge of how to use Morse code. That requirement was recently dropped, but many amateur radio members still like to use the skill.
The advantages to using CW is that very little equipment is needed, it carries better over the air because it needs only a narrow bandwidth, and it usually uses less energy when transmitting, Nelson said.
Transmission ability is the key to ham radio members, as they can transmit when other methods, such as cell phones and the Internet, cannot.
Each year, radio club members are asked to help with several high-altitude races, such as the Hardrock 100 in July.
The Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, which starts in Silverton, takes participants on a big loop through the San Juan Mountains at an average elevation of 11,186 feet.
The ham radios are vital in areas, such as in this race, where communication is necessary but not easily accessible.
And as storm clouds roll in, amateur radio buffs take on another role – volunteers for the National Weather Service.
SKYWARN is a volunteer program of the NWS created in the 1970s as a way to have more eyes-on-the-skies to identify and describe severe local storms.
"Unlike most storm spotters who remain at their residence and report what they see from that single location, our SKYWARN spotters are mobile storm spotters who operate as a team, communicate via ham radio and travel to various locations depending on the need and request of the NWS forecasters," said Jim Pringle, meteorologist with the Grand Junction NWS.
Of the approximately 70 Montrose Amateur Radio Club members, about a dozen participate and have gotten training to be a SKYWARN spotter, according to the club.
"SKYWARN storm spotters are part of the ranks of citizens who form our nation's first line of defense against severe weather," Pringle said.
And these club members also serve another line of defense as members of the Military Auxiliary Radio System.
MARS is a U.S. Department of Defense program that provides a civilian auxiliary of licensed amateur radio operators, said Steve Schroder, the state director for MARS and a Hotchkiss resident.
The club also can be called on to help area sheriff departments, the American Red Cross and other emergency agencies.
Roles such as these keep 10-year radio club member Sherry Thompson excited about the hobby.
"As a club member, we help out with lots of things," she said. "It's amazing the people that step up to the plate when they are called on."