GILLETTE, Wyo. -- A Coast Guard crew dressed in blue uniforms scans computer screens and large metal machines covered with blinking bulbs and metal switches.
The five-member crew operates in small, windowless rooms as a high-pitched chirping sound drones rhythmically in the background from the rows of machines.
It is easy to assume the crew is working in the bowels of a ship or at a harbor station, relaying messages from incoming vessels and tracking fishing boats. But one step through a simple metal door reveals the expansive Wyoming prairie, not water, stretched out to the horizon. It is not the salty sea air, but the biting Wyoming wind that invades the senses.
The Coast Guard crew is stationed about 30 miles south of Gillette at the LORAN-C station.
Electronics Technician Chief Rodney Clark, who commands the Gillette station, said they usually get a quizzical look when they tell people in Gillette they're with the Coast Guard.
"A lot of people go 'Coast Guard?'" Clark said. They ask if the crew is stationed out at Keyhole Reservoir or if they are recruiters. Neither is correct.
And soon, the crew won't be in Campbell County at all.
About a 1,000 miles from the nearest coast line, it's the crew's job to maintain the radio signal that emanates from the 700-foot tower just outside the station. Each crew member has a specific duty to make sure the signal is strong, constant and back in operation as quickly as possible if it ever goes down.
"We have 59 seconds if there is a failure or something happens to the system to bring it back on air and in tolerance," Clark said.
LORAN - short for "long-range navigation" - was developed during World War II for military ships and aircraft. LORAN-C was developed for civilian use in 1957, and uses radio signals from 24 land-based towers operated by the Coast Guard across the United States to determine positions at sea or in the air.
The Campbell County station has played a crucial role in that coverage for the past 20 years. The radio tower sends out a precise radio pulse that can be picked up from Bismarck, N.D., to Grand Junction, Colo.
LORAN was the standard-issue navigation system for commercial fishing boats, recreational craft and other vessels for decades, as well as a supplemental navigation aid on many small aircraft. LORAN receivers pick up the signal from several towers and use it to pinpoint positions to within 500 yards. At the network's peak, an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million were in use. Today, the LORAN network is in decline, but there are still some older fishing boats that still use it, as do some pilots.
"Why the Coast Guard runs it? I don't know, truly," Clark said, adding that it probably is because the Coast Guard was part of the Department of Transportation before it became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and LORAN deals with navigation. When the network expanded to continental coverage, it just stayed under Coast Guard control.
The Gillette station switched on its signal in 1990 and has been broadcasting continuously ever since.
But just after the station opened, there was talk of shutting down the LORAN network in favor of a new technology. A "global positioning system" using satellites was rapidly expanding and soon would become the main way ships and planes pinpointed their location. It was more accurate and much less expensive.
Rumors and speculations about replacing LORAN with global positioning systems have been circulating since 1995, Clark said. Those rumors increased when the Coast Guard came under Homeland Security control.
Recently, the decision finally was issued: The LORAN system has been deemed outdated and is "no longer required as a maritime navigation tool," according to a Coast Guard news release.
The steady radio waves and rhythmic chirping that has emanated from the Gillette-area tower for the past 20 years will be turned off Feb. 16.
The Department of Homeland Security said eliminating LORAN could save $36 million in 2010 and $190 million over five years. It would result in the elimination of 256 jobs, according to the Coast Guard.
The announcement came as no surprise to the crew of the Gillette LORAN-C station, but it still is a decision they have mixed feelings about. The crew is a tight-knit group, working together every day in close quarters.
"It is a little bit like family," said Shannon Butterfield, electronics technician 1st class. "You really learn to look out for each other and help each other out."
Butterfield has been at the Gillette station for eight months and said she was excited to be stationed here.
Before coming to Gillette, she was stationed at a master station on the West Coast, sending information to ships in the Pacific.
"My family is originally from the Black Hills and my mom lives in Sheridan," Butterfield said. The Gillette station "is the only place in the Coast Guard that is anywhere near my family."
Now that the station is being shut down, the crew is eager to know where they will be heading next. For most, it likely will be back to the coast or on a ship.
Wherever each one ends up, they probably won't be using the skills and knowledge they have had to learn to keep the LORAN station running.
"I'm really glad I got to participate in it before it went away," Butterfield said. "But I think there is a lot of expertise and knowledge (here). It is unfortunate we are not going to use it or upgrade it."
The crew won't ship out too soon, though. It is going to take at least six months to completely shut down the station then dismantle the rooms full of machines that create the signal.
For the time being, the crew will continue to scan computer screens and make sure the signal is just right, just as Coast Guard members have done for 20 years.