A different energy flowed through the windy field behind Troy Howard Middle School June 22. The Waldo County Amateur Radio Association (WCARA) was participating in the annual Field Day competition for amateur radio clubs in the United States.

The portable antenna, owned by the Waldo County Regional Communications Center, stood 40 feet tall in the middle of the field, a beacon extending into the sky pulling in signals from eager competition participants from different places in the U.S.

The event is held to connect the community with amateur, or ham radio operators. It provides important practice for amateur radio clubs in the country to set up a mobile unit efficiently and start sending call signals.

Ham radios can be used in emergency situations — as when the power grid fails — to communicate efficiently with many people at once. But ham radio is more commonly used for event communications and rescues, according to local club President Doug Nelson.

The field day event takes place over a 24-hour period, during which clubs in the U.S. have to make as many communications over their radios to get the most points, which are accrued for how far, how many and what types of communications a club makes.

WCARA made 80 communications in one hour on the first night of the weekend competition, which began about 2 p.m. Saturday. The club made 696 contacts and reached people as far away as California through Sunday afternoon. A contact was made with Australia, but because it is a U.S. competition, the local club didn’t receive points for that contact.

Two stations were set up for communication. One was in the Mobile Communications Vehicle owned by the Waldo County EMA, which was renovated from an ambulance bought for $1 from the town of Litchfield. The other was a digital radio that only sends and receives text.

Over a dozen guests, including Mayor Samantha Paradis, visited the competition to learn about the practice of ham radio and its importance in disaster and emergency situations. A station was set up where a club member could assist people who wanted to participate in sending a radio communication, in hopes of introducing young people to the practice.

A ham of many trades

Nelson took a long, winding road to the practice of ham radio. He first encountered ham radios in the service, operated by fellow servicemen, but didn’t decide to get his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license for ham radio until after he retired in 2010.

Between his service and retirement, Nelson worked as a carpenter, factory worker and substitute teacher and had hoped to settle on being a pilot. But had his chance of flying commercial evaporated in 1977 because of a conflicting medication. Finally, after a serious medical issue in his 40s, he earned a bachelor’s degree and became a social worker.

“It was fun going to school in your 40s because if you knew a professor was full of crap you could tell him so,” Nelson said.

Peter McBride’s interest in ham radio began at a much younger age — he got his FCC license in 1978 as a freshman in high school. There is no age requirement for licensing.

McBride inherited his interest in ham radio from his father, who enjoyed listening to overseas broadcast stations. He still has some of the old equipment he used when he was younger.

He went on to become a mechanical engineer who helps communities save power by introducing them to more efficient equipment, another passion of his.

It has been awhile since McBride made a call on his equipment, but said, “I enjoy listening as much as transmitting.”

Club treasurer Stephen Curry likes the idea that ham radio allows for communication with multiple people. With cell phones, it is a direct and closed line, but with amateur radio he can pick up connections on his radio from many people at once.

“You don’t just pick up your phone and call anybody,” Curry said.

Talking on a ham radio is like bumping into somebody from Australia or South Africa that you can talk to about anything, according to Curry. Most people speak some English because it is deemed the universal ham language. All calls have to be made in English despite a person’s native language.

There are only two unwritten rules: no talking about politics or religion. Conversation usually consists of discussions about the equipment they’re using.

All in the ham shack

Ham shacks are places where amateur radio operators keep their radio and related equipment.

“You can spend $200 or $10,000 on a radio … it’s a hobby where you either love it or you just don’t care,” Curry said.

Having an expensive radio doesn’t mean it will reach more distant places. Radios that cost more tend to have more amenities, but far-reaching calls can be made with radios that are economically priced. A call’s distance depends on the antenna and radio band.

Typically, a larger antenna will send a signal higher into the ionosphere, a molecularly unstable part of the atmosphere that moves signals.

In good solar flare years, call signals are amplified and distant calls can be made easily with weaker radios and antennas. Solar flares excite positive molecules in the ionosphere and make it easier for weaker signals to pass.

Signals are released in curled bands, like a slithering snake, and the meters refer to how long that band is from the upper curve across the lower curve.

The amateur radio operators at this event used bands from 80 to 15 meters. In McBride’s experience, 20-meter bands tend to be best for sending out international signals — the tighter the band, the farther its reach.

Each licensed ham radio operator has a unique call sign administered by the FCC. Every 10 minutes operators are communicating over radio, they must announce their signs, which are linked to their information in online profiles that can be viewed by anybody listening.

Calls are made using the NATO phonetics alphabet to help eliminate misunderstood call signs. To count for points during the field day, calls have to be logged in a computerized sheet by both clubs who make a communication.

The results of the competition won’t be posted until fall, but WCARA members aren’t concerned about where they placed in the competition. They are just eager to keep in practice to be prepared for emergency situations so they can help the community when needed.