Jerry Prindle, front, and Howard Shepard work to contact amateur radio operators across North America on Saturday. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

When all else fails … amateur radio

Hanging on a chain link fence across from the Division of Motor Vehicles office in the Mendnehal Valley is a sign that reads: “When all else fails … amateur radio.”

Most don’t realize it, Juneau Amateur Radio Club’s David Bruce said, but in the event of a large-scale disaster, the first thing to go would be cellphone service. Juneau would then rely on amateur radio hobbyists, known as hams, to communicate with the outside world.

On Saturday, Juneau’s hams, a group of technically-inclined tinkerers, gathered at their headquarters in a brown trailer next to the Hagavig Regional Fire Training Center.

The trailer bustled with about 20 people, mostly retired men in their 60s and 70s. They all gathered around two radio operators, Jerry Prindle, sporting a gray ponytail and tattoos, and Howard Shepherd, wearing a denim shirt and a short-billed blue hat.

As part of a national competition, the pair were working feverishly to contact people in all 50 states and every territory and province in Canada through a 105-foot radio tower outside the trailer.

“Whiskey, whiskey, seven, November, bravo, one alpha, Alaska …” Prindle read into the radio as Sheherd took notes.

The pair couldn’t be bothered, so Bruce explained what they were doing.

“You see the red, up there? Those are all the states and provinces they’ve contacted so far,” Bruce said, pointing to a map of North America on a computer monitor Prindle was looking at. “What they’re trying to do is get all the states, provinces and sectors. You get so many points for contact. Behind the scenes, it’s practice for emergency communication.”

Some of the more populated states and provinces have multiple sectors. Alaska just has one. About 35,000 people across the country competed in the event, which took place during a 24-hour period on Saturday and Sunday.

If this was a real disaster the scene would be more somber, Bruce said. This weekend, those around Prindle and Shepherd chatted and drank coffee. Some were working with a ham named Pat to build low-tech antennas, which could be used to hang from tree branches if “we were really out in the sticks,” Pat said.

A few hams hung out next to a grill outside.

“In a disaster, it would be totally different. We wouldn’t have people talking or whatever,” Bruce said, “it would be totally quiet and they’d be exchanging messages and doing whatever needed to be done.”

If an earthquake, tsunami or other disaster were to knock out Juneau’s communications infrastructure, Juneau’s hams would operate a radio at the National Weather Service station on Mendenhall Loop Road.

Many Juneau hams have their own radio equipment. It’s a hobby that you can get into for a couple hundred dollars, or spend your whole life savings on, Bruce said.

Bruce spends many nights sitting in his garage, talking to other hams from all around the world. He says he has good friends he’s never met from across the globe.

It’s a tight-knit community. If a ham sees an antenna in a person’s backyard while traveling, it’s pretty common for them to go knock on a door.

“You don’t shut your door on a ham,” Bruce said.

Mike Martell, visiting from Florida, and Mike Coombs, visiting with his wife Sue Coombs from Bath, England, had already struck up an acquaintance while visiting the JARC operation on Saturday.

Coombs has been a ham for 50 years. The bobby is falling a bit by the wayside with today’s emphasis on computers, he said.

“When I got my license, there was no phone, no internet. I talked to people in Australia, in the UK, people in the States. It was a really unique thing to do. Now a days, I don’t know,” Coombs said.

Membership to the club, which costs about $40, is open to all Juneau residents. They have weekly luncheons at Safeway deli and participate in events like these frequently.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or

David Bruce stands in front of Juneau Amateur Radio Club’s radio tower on Saturday. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire Jerry Prindle, left, and Howard Shepherd work to contact amateur radio operators across North America on Saturday.

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