Attend a Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) meeting anywhere in the US, and you’ll hear story upon story of dangerous situations – many preventable – witnessed or experienced by an engineer at a tower / transmitter site.
We’ve heard them, too – or experienced them firsthand while in the field. That’s why you’re never too old, too “seasoned”, to review what can happen in a single moment at a transmitter site when you fail to respect your surroundings.
We’ve compiled a list of five common experiences – all potentially dangerous and some even deadly – for a quick review.
Electricity is the most obvious (and most likely) danger you will deal with at a transmitter site. It’s an area of high voltage, and should be treated with the greatest respect.
There are the simple and rather obvious actions you can take to keep yourself safe. Not touching an open wire, for one thing. For another, making sure all capacitors are discharged before working on high voltage. Also, working with one hand – not both, so as not to possibly complete a circuit through your body.
Beware the Elements
Snow, ice, and thunderstorms can cause serious damage to transmitter sites. The cycle of freeze-thaw combined with snow, freezing rain and wind can wreak havoc to the tower site.
What’s more, when the temperatures begin to warm after a snow and ice storm, the ice on the tower and antennas above can break off – becoming a projectile that damages equipment, antennas, and – yes, injuring people below. Imagine a five pound piece of ice falling from a height of 1800 feet…
Bottom line: when you’re out at a transmitter site after a snow and/or ice incident, watch for weather-produced hazards and wear a hard hat.
Intense Radio Frequencies (RF)
RF is nothing to mess around with. You should use extreme caution when at a transmitter site to avoid standing next to RF.
Nearly every engineer I have spoken with about RF has experienced a burn at one time or another, and it can happen by the lightest touch of a transmission line. RF burns are extremely painful burn, and it can take months to heal.
Thankfully, exposure to non-ionizing RF intensities, the kind of RF you find at a tower site, does not cause cancer. When exposed to high levels of RF, our bodies struggle to handle the excessive heat that could be generated during high exposure. Exposure to high RF can result in heating of biological tissue, an increase in body temperature and, as stated before, even a nasty burn.
For this exact reason, it’s common practice to reduce power on an FM or TV station tower before allowing tower crews to climb. Because an AM tower is the radiation hazard, ANY work on the physical tower must be turned off.
Tower sites are usually in remote areas; areas more likely frequented by animals and reptiles, rather than people. Though fencing helps keep some animals away, for others it is not a deterrent.
At a remote site in North Florida, one engineer reported an entire family of aggressive moccasins nesting around the steps of an AM transmitter building. In the same region, a TV antenna built in a marshy area finds their guy wires underwater most of the year. Not only do the elements make inspections nearly impossible, the water is also teeming with gators. (Known fact, alligators can and will climb metal fencing.)
Even satellite dishes are not immune from animal activity. From wasps to cattle, we’ve seen damage to the feed horn and even the antenna itself.
In Oklahoma, a rancher’s cow discovered that a satellite antenna was a perfect scratch post. The constant rubbing mangled the feed assembly, significantly disrupting the signal. We now refer to this as “bovine fade”.
You can’t keep every creature away from your site, but you should always inspect and repair the fencing at a remote transmitter building for intrusions.
A wild boar or a bear can do serious damage to your site, and is certainly an unwelcome visitor when you are on site, as well.
We all remember that infamous line from the movie Forest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Well, there’s nothing as stupid as individuals who don’t understand the potential hazards at a tower and/or transmitter site, breaking in and causing mischief.
Copper thieves, tower and base jumpers, errant teenagers…they all seem to be attracted to tower sites, yet very few – if any – understand the hazards.
At a television station in the St. Louis area in the late 1990’s, two inebriated men broke into the station’s tower site overnight and began climbing the tower. They were found by a rescue crew the next morning halfway to the top. While one of the men was safely rescued by First Responders, the other panicked and tried to get down himself by the guy wire. He fell and was killed.
Every engineer has heard a story like this before; people trespassing at a broadcast facility. Usually we see the results of an unlawful “visit”; like a broken lock or a damaged fence. But as an engineer called to the site – often in the middle of the night – you never know what you may roll up on, especially in remote areas. It’s a common practice for many engineers to travel armed for self defense.
Looking for new ways to protect the sites – like cameras and motion detectors – can not only notify engineers before arriving on site, but may also work as a deterrent to someone thinking about breaking in.
Safety at the work site, especially at a tower / transmitter site, can never be understated.
Taking responsibility for your personal safety is imperative. Following safety procedures and using common sense is a must.
Being alert and attentive to your surroundings helps you identify possible hazards. It is important to limit distractions, as well. Taking care to be mentally present while working at a tower site helps you actively follow procedures and practice caution.