Art Mayoff was babysitting when a cathedral-style radio console caught his eye and captured his imagination.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” Art, 73, says with a low chuckle. “That radio probably stood three-and-a-half feet tall. It had shortwave bands on it. After the kids went to sleep, I’d turn that radio on and listen to stations from all over the world.”

Art became a ham radio operator—call sign AA6AM—and began communicating in Morse Code while a teenager living in Montreal. “I found Morse Code to be so intriguing that I didn’t even own a microphone for 20 years. I just did finger talk.” He now collects Morse Code keys.

He built his retail business around his love of radio, operating the Base Station in Concord for 25 years before he retired in 1999. The store specialized in hobby communications.

Today, Art’s enthusiasm for ham radio dovetails with his interest in emergency preparedness. He is Benicia’s coordinator for local hams in the event of an emergency and carries a handheld radio with him at all times. While talking with Benicia Magazine in October, he listens as ham operators check in for the annual earthquake drill known as the Great California Shake Out.

Art is actively involved with the Benicia Amateur Radio Club, which has more than 60 members. He serves as treasurer and teaches all-day training and testing sessions. He is a trained member of the Benicia Emergency Response Team, volunteers with the Benicia Police Department and is the federal trustee of a ham radio station in the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

Art’s devotion to volunteer service has been recognized by the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism and he has received the President’s Volunteer Service Award numerous times. He was Benicia’s Volunteer of the Year for 2011, and he was awarded the Benicia Police Department’s Medal of Valor for assisting with rescuing a toddler who’d tumbled into a Fairfield lake in 2005.

Art’s wife, Sue, is a fellow ham radio operator. The couple and their two children settled in Benicia in 1984. He works part-time as a facility attendant for Benicia’s Parks and Community Services Department.

How do local ham radio operators train for emergencies? Every Thursday night at 7:30, we have one of two weekly on-the-air meetings. We call it a Net.

Thursday is Benicia emergency training net; Monday is an everybody net.

We usually do training at that time. This week (in late October) will be an on-the-air drill based on the scenario of a 7.7 earthquake hitting Benicia. Everyone will be assigned a street intersection. There’s more value and realism with more participation. Everyone is encouraged to add more detail to the script they get. And they’re told to remember you are a ham reporting what you see and maintaining a log of the chaos around you. … That log is passed on to the Emergency Operations Center when there’s a real emergency.

Not all our training is this elaborate, but we train regularly.

Do local ham operators respond to all local emergencies? No, only when a communications path is needed. The last emergency we helped with was when a sulfur truck blew up or burned up on the bridge in 1985.

With cell phones and Internet access, are ham radios still needed? People often say ham radio is outdated. But it’s not. We can provide communication without extra infrastructure. We don’t need 110 volts of electricity. We can run with solar panels and batteries. …

If the city’s communications go down, we can be operating in about 30 minutes. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to set up once we get to the site.

What equipment does Benicia have to operate radio communications in emergencies? The Fire Department has devices called Go Kits. They’re ham radio stations on wheels. There are four from fire department, one from the club, for five total. The kits can be deployed to a hilltop or a shelter or wherever they’re needed. They’ve got solar panels, batteries, multiple antennas—they can act as a repeater if the city’s repeaters fail. Two of the five Go Kits have worldwide capabilities. …

They have radio email as well. The Internet could be down and we can send email to the county and beyond. And all this is monitored and overseen by volunteers.

Why are ham operators and emergency response volunteers needed in Benicia? The Fire Department only has eight firefighters on duty at any one time. When a disaster hits, the first help you could get without the volunteers could be a San Diego fire truck or a Sacramento fire truck because mutual aid could be the only thing available.

When you’re trained with BERT (Benicia Emergency Response Team), you’re surveying your neighborhood, entering information like the number of people injured, where there are gas leaks or water leaks or fires – whatever it is that you see. You provide that info to the neighborhood team leader and radio operator assigned to the neighborhood team leader.

When you activate the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and radio room, one of the first things you ask for is a status report from all the BERT teams in the city.

Lisa Duncan Photography

Radio room at Benicia Fire Department Emergency Operations Center

What memories stand out from your years as a ham radio operator? Two come to mind: The Guatemala earthquake a while ago. I was asked by the Sister Cities organization in Pleasant Hill to create a communication path … and find out what was needed. What was needed most urgently were medical supplies. We began calling hospitals, looking for supplies that were about to expire. We had ham radio operators going to their hospitals to pick up these supplies. Hams were working with Sister Cities to make arrangements to get the supplies to Guatemala.

We staffed and ran the radio station 24/7 for 10 to 12 days. When everything was said and done, I got a humanitarian award from the Consul General from Guatemala.

The second was when I was asked to pass along a message from an elderly brother at a seminary to his family about some communication—I don’t remember what it was. I took the traffic, made the call—got it taken care of, got a reply and passed it up the line. I found out about a week or 10 days later that this was his last communication with his family before he passed away. That isn’t earth-shattering, but it caused me to glow that I was able to help.

How has ham radio communication changed over the years? We used to handle all sorts of traffic before the Internet came along. When people went into the service, there was no way to communicate with your family. Hams were able to do that before cell phones and the Internet.

What motivates you to do this? I like helping people. After I retired and took the BERT class, I saw there was a need for training so Benicia would be prepared. That was that opportunity to help that I was looking for.

How can people get started in ham radio? You don’t need a technical background. Come to the monthly radio club meetings. They’re held the second Tuesday of every month, except December, at 7:30pm at the downtown fire station. Enter through the side door on West Second. Or they can contact me at

What do you do to relax? This (motioning to his handheld radio). I like playing with radios, helping others. I enjoy surfing the web, getting news, different points of view. The Internet is what shortwave used to be. If you wanted to get a different opinion, go see what a different country has to say about different subjects, that’s what shortwave was all about. Now you go on the Internet.

Also, my wife and I love cruising. We love going out of San Francisco.