JACKSONVILLE — More than a year after a tornado ripped through Jacksonville, members of the Calhoun County Amateur Radio Association began their 24-hour streak of sending and receiving radio messages across the world. It was practice, members said, that could come in handy if disaster strikes the county again.
Association member Susan Campbell said the group, around 15 in all, started sending the messages around 1 p.m. Saturday from the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency building in Jacksonville as part of the national Amateur Radio Relay League field day contest.
Some members planned to come and go, Campbell said, while others planned to stay the full 24 hours.
Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency deputy director Greg Militano said the group’s goal was to get in contact with as many stations around the world as possible. According to Militano, Calhoun County has taken part each year in the field day for more than two decades.
Over the years, Militano said, he’s been able to contact groups in Germany, Spain and New Zealand. Campbell said she was able to reach a group in Hawaii a few years ago.
During the field day, Militano said, the group set up three stations in the EMA building — one that sent voice messages, a second that sent digital signals and a third that sent signals through Morse code.
A fourth station, that wasn’t part of the contest, was set up in a field beside the EMA building. To operate radios used by the association, which they called ham radios, Susan Campbell said, a person has to be licensed. According to Campbell, the fourth station allowed people without a license to try the radios under supervision.
“They might get interested in what we’re doing, and we can allow them to get on the air and see what it’s like to operate,” Campbell said.
Association member Shawn Campbell, Susan’s husband, said the areas they were able to connect with depended on the time of day, sunspots and the quality of the atmosphere.
“The radio signal goes up, hits the atmosphere, comes back down on the earth and goes up and down, up and down, until it hits the receiving station,” he said. “Depending on a whole bunch of different things, the signal may not be good in California, but I may be able to get to go from here to Arkansas really good.”
Around 1:30 p.m., Campbell said, it was easier to reach stations where there was daylight, meaning members would likely have a better chance of sending signals to the West Coast that evening.
Campbell, who sent digital messages, said there were 20 different modes of digital radio where a signal was sent through computers, some of which allow broadcasters to send things like emails, text messages and pictures through radio waves.
Campbell said the mode he used, called FT8, sent and received signal reports, which gave details about the quality of the signal.
Vic Cestaro, who has been using Morse code for nearly six decades, said it’s much more practical than you’d think. According to Cestaro, Morse code messages take less bandwidth to send and can be easier to hear than voice messages.
“Morse goes back to the early days of radio. It was the only way to communicate,” Cestaro said.
When the tornado hit Jacksonville in March 2018, Militano said, the Calhoun County EMA was able to turn most of its communications over to association members.
“We turned them loose as communications at different remote sites with their amateur equipment and we had someone here monitoring for amateur radio,” Militano said. “That way, we didn’t have to take first responders off the line.”
According to Susan Campbell, the field day served as a good way for those in the group to hone their radio skills in case something like that happens again.
“When all else fails, ham radio is the last resort. It’s the only one that works,” she said.