Dispatch by Mark Bell

THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST: How could a truck operator drive right into a power line or raise the mast with the antenna right into a power line?

MARK BELL: Job pressures, pressured statements from Producers such as "Station "X" is there and up, why aren't YOU up yet?" are reasons. This could/is followed by a report to a manager about sloppy, slow, or bad-attitude-performance on the part of an ENG driver who drives the speed limit, looks at the area above the truck before putting a mast up, or does other things to enhance/prioritize safety.

Pretty soon, with the newsroom-based criticism, the tech is conditioned to know that fast is the key. The paycheck comes in without anybody yelling at him/her when they just shaddup and do the job, and as the weeks go by, good safety habits give way to shortcuts, again, rewarded with "good job" for fast performance, and then it all becomes "Cultural." That is to say the "culture" is a competition to do the work with little regard for anything but performance based factors. Few if any, certainly not those who work in the newsroom, ever had "safe operations" on their resume to enhance their candidacy for a job...

This is also a reason why trucks have their safety devices altered or removed. Managers might not know that a certain device is a safety feature, but are told, "Gee, if we didn't have this on the truck, we could move it with the mast up, saving 10 minutes of mast raise/lower time," and the manager, crew chief, whoever, allows it. It's funny how manufacturers cite the many trucks which come into their shops with safety devices altered or removed, and the many station managers who insist they don't allow it. That leaves the employees as the ones holding the bag of defeated safety devices. The employees, for reasons best known to them, create their own potential for peril. If safety is not an issue for employees, why should it be for managers?

Using questionable judgment, or incomplete perceptions. i.e. the truck feels top-heavy and the driver doesn't react to the different feel of the truck, and the thought does not occur that the truck's mast is still elevated.

DJ: What happens when the mast hits a power line?

MB: When the antenna on a microwave truck hits a power line the truck becomes energized at the same voltage to ground as the powerline. Typically, tires isolate the chassis from the ground, in many cases giving the truck a 4-6" margin of isolation from ground, or, "shorting" the circuit the line carries voltage for. If there are cables, such as video cables running for the truck, hooked to it, the outer layer of the cable, insulated by a fraction of an inch of rubber, will be the only insulation, which will most likely fail. In such a case, and it's happened, the cable sinks into the ground and the conductive matter, in this case the truck, chassis, cables, etc, will heat up and fail, or start a fire. Again, it's happened. Human misery results when a person bridges the isolation from ground, i.e. reporter Adrienne Alpert touching the armrest of the truck with left hand/arm and touching ground with right foot.
DJ: Why would a tv reporter or technician risk their life for a Live Shot?

MB: If you are a reporter or photographer, maybe you work with the inspiration of famed photographer, Robert Capa, who said: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." Such guidance will get the picture, maybe the story, and also place you close enough to become a part of it.

If you think getting the story is all you are interested in, your life is second to your survival, maybe that's ok; It's your life. But, if you want to live with the business being a part of you, and that of your family, and you enjoy the thought of living until a natural death, Chances are, without preparedness, or knowing some lessons of the past, you'll never know what hit you.

DJ: Why would a trained professional ever hit a power line? Isn't that like sticking your wet finger into an electrical socket?

MB: Do experienced fliers forget to lower flaps when landing? It's happened. A recent edition of a Bell-Textron publication about helicopter flying detailed pilots forgetting to untie their rotor blades after what was thought to be a thorough walk-around.

Do doctors forget important parts of procedures and leave instruments in people? Yes. Lawyers forgetting critical pieces of material in trials? Yes.

In the last few months, pilots have been caught drunk and restrained from flying. I doubt that these are the first fliers to ever be drunk while flying.

The reason why well trained pros make mistakes similar to that of amateurs is because they are human. Humans are subject to distractions of emotion, task saturation, and perceptual means of taking them off the job at hand. The only cure for this human "malady" is teamwork, double checking, and other aides in simply getting the job done. To assist in this, employers, parents, law enforcement people, friends, relatives, etc., have to reward compliance with safety rules. It's idealistic, but safe work and personal practices are often looked at as the longer, more boring, amateurish way of performing tasks. Again, it's human.

DJ: What should be done to make microwave Live Shots safer?

MB: I would like to see Unions place members on notice regarding the safety policies of their employers, and if a Union member breaks a safety rule, the Union will NOT defend the employee if there is an accident, or grievance causing event. There are two penalties for safety violations. Those imposed by employers, parents, government agencies are one, and the injuries, misery, and property damage which occurs when an accident occurs that could have been prevented by use of safety devices or principles, is the other. Have you heard of enough accidents in our lifetime involving non-seatbelted or drug-impaired drivers? One insurance company research organization states that hand-held cellphone use impairs people more then driving drunk. Are the figures accurate? Well, the figures are the figures.....which way are YOU going to learn?


Go the story..I dare you.

Each year TV stations report the stories of incompetence in various professional departments in their coverage areas.....we all know them. Some are done for "Sweeps." You know them, the stories of electrical boxes at the bases of traffic signals left uncovered, wires dangling out...or parks which have "deadly" hazards for their kid clients, YOUR kids.

In Boston, it was a field day to eviscerate MassPort after the 9-11 hijackings. It was an agency without a heart, soul, or brains. Being a Boston resident, my personal joke about it goes something like this: How many job offers has the ex-MassPort head had to run another agency?

Answer: NONE!!

We all know of the areas of weakness we have in our communities. But few in the community know of the weakness we are aware of in our own companies as workers in mass media.

How are you trained? How deep is your awareness of emergency procedures and aspects of a disaster scene? If you are injured, disabled or killed, (IDK'd) what happens? Does your family receive any extra benefits to assist with the loss of your income?

Picture a fire. There are four people standing next to each other. A fireman, police officer, power company/utility official, and you, holding your camera, wired to your live truck for that all-important opportunity to "inform" the hundreds of thousands of viewers in your area of the fact a house is on fire. If the firefighter is IDK'd, he/she has insurance, or if disabled or killed, a pension. The police officer?

They also have coverage related to the danger of their work. If disabled, they are covered in a number of ways. The power company/utility reps? Many are covered in similar fashion, with many having medical coverage FOR LIFE after being vested with the company.

The photog? It's laughable. There are few benefits even close to those offered emergency services people, and training for those (you) who travel to similar places in similar circumstances and face all the dangers of being there. Also, YOU are the only person in a rush against the clock. An amazing pressure.

It is not a "fair" system, but it is the system that is. If you are a reporter or photographer who travels to dangerous places to perform your job, you need all the education and training you can get. You have to do it yourself though. Part of that is seeing what has happened, and modifying your behavior so you don't repeat the errors. With good counseling, you may be able to prevent your invention of new errors, too.

Lessons of the past - Events that can teach the lesson to the wise:

Lesson: Don't run while working. Running unreasonably stresses physical and physiological limits, many times in environments not meant to have people moving at faster than walking speeds.

Item of teaching: An ENG technician/photographer/live truck operator, Dick Terry, was killed while running to and fro setting up a live shot. Mr. Terry stumbled and fell onto a fence spike which poked him in his eye socket. He was injured, but all seemed to be ok, and he performed the job at hand, a noon-news live shot showing how a goat had been recruited to keep grass growth minimized at a local firehouse. After the shot was over, Mr. Terry felt dizzy and had a progressive headache. What was thought to be a minor injury was, in fact, a perforation of his eye socket causing a brain hemorrhage. He died a few days later.

Lesson: All power lines are dangerous. If you are involved in the operation of any apparatus which can reach power lines, or any high voltage lines, you should have documented education regarding clearances and approach distances, and be certified in CPR, so if there is an accident, you can possibly revive a stricken person. (CFR 24, 1910.268) Operators and others involved should also be versed in the behaviors necessary for survival if they are caught in an energized vehicle, or one under perils of chemical exposure/infiltration. Item of teaching: Reporter Adrienne Alpert and Photographer/technician/truck operator Heather MacKenzie parked their news van under approximately 17 elevated wires on a main LA street. The mast was raised in a position that, no matter what, it would be well within the 10 foot clearance defined by federal regulations. The mast made contact with energized wires, shocking Ms. MacKenzie, who fell back from the truck, and then, having been given advice to do so from an auto body shop employee, Ms. Alpert stepped out of the energized truck, left hand on the door handle, hitting the ground with her right foot, causing damage to her body so severe she needed to have multiple amputations, parts of her left arm and right leg, and more.

Lesson: Do not drive a truck with its mast elevated: Mast manufacturer Will-Burt, manufacturer of over 90% ofTV news trucks masts, has recommended for years that trucks not be driven while masts are extended. Item of teaching: A KWCH news crew was traveling within their coverage area when the mast on their truck elevated. They were editing a story while traveling, and apparently the mast compressor was on and functioning with the rest of the truck's electronics. The result was that the mast rose, and got hung up in live power lines after being driven into them, and the crew, luckily, knew what to do, and stayed in the truck, safe, until emergency services personnel helped free them from the accident. One report from a station source suggested that the trucks interlocks were never functioning.

Additional item: A truck driven by an operator from KOAT was driven, with its mast elevated, into power lines. The operator, who had been cited in an accident 7 months earlier in which he reportedly lost control of the van, was terminated from employment.

Lesson: Wrong place at wrong time. People without proper training should not be involved, or in proximity to, dangerous or hazardous incidents. Item of teaching: A news director related the story about how a crew was in the middle of west coast wild fires. She saw them from their helicopter and questioned them about their position, clearly stating that they were at risk. The crew informed the ND that they were ok, and getting really good stuff. Their position turned out to be cause for them to be overcome by smoke. The reporter was out of work for a long period of time as a result of the damage. There was no word of the "great stuff" they got.

Look in the mirror. As yourself about the training you have. REAL training. Have you ever attended an academy for firefighters? Then why do you feel you are authorized to go near fires? Aware of behaviors around chemical spills, train wrecks, or other potentially hazardous chemical situations? How about crime scenes, or areas in a city deemed dangerous or violent? What makes you so smart? If you don't know, you don't know. Period. Trained people know they have been trained.

Dare to report the story to yourself. Then get education and training.

Compared to the professionals you stand next to while documenting "news," you have only a tiny safety net, and that is the one you constructed yourself through education, training, and great insurance policies to protect your family if all goes wrong as you assume some unpredictable risks.

Most TV news people are not trained, certified, or versed in the risks of their work, but they are out there, using equipment which places the public at risk. Is one of them you? Report THAT story. I dare you.

Mark Bell

Live at Five, Dead by Six

Some ENG truck accidents from 1975 to the present
compiled by Mark Bell

1985 - Fatality - Bob Tierney, Bakersfield, CA. Reportedly went back into van to get fire extinguisher twice after mast was placed into power line contact and caught fire.

1985 - Double half leg amputation - Don Hayford - Denver, CO. Went back to van to lower mast "because you can get in trouble for screwing up your truck." Extended treatment and medical care through the years.

1986 - Burned hands, Cara Crosby, WCAU, Philadelphia, PA. Mast was raised into power lines.

1991 - (Oak Harbor, Washington)--Some Oak Harbor residents thought they were under terrorist attack when the antenna on a KIRO-TV truck snagged a power line, setting off a small explosion and fire.

1993 - Top market op places mast into power lines after driving off with mast fully extended.

1994 - Fatality - "Al" Battle - Alexandria, VA. Placed mast into 19,900 volts, rushed set up, pressure from assignment desk. Accident caught on videotape.

1995 - Major market Chief Photographer in state described as "sleepwalking" before incident drives away news van with mast extended, toppling the mast. Nobody hurt.

1995 - Fellow nicknamed "Sparky" after his accident, placed mast into power line and totaled truck (burned) and received permanent minor injuries.

1995 - Double injury, WINK-TV Ft. Myers, FL, Dan Nelson, Valerie Vance severely injured and burned, Dan Nelson's injuries resulted in half leg amputation. Further medical treatment anticipated in the future.

1995- Fatality - WBGG-FM technician Spencer Johnson killed when he raises mast of radio remote studio into power lines outside music bar where concert was to be later broadcast.

1995 - Van in Chicago burns after mast elevated into 50,000 volt lines.

1995 - Numerous reports of masts being brought into contact with overhead obstructions and breaking off mast top devices and damaging mast structures.

1996 - WCSC, rh Lawrence, technician on his first week of employment goes out with Chief Photographer on live shot and CP raises mast into wires, Lawrence is seriously injured.

1996 - Engineering Supervisor from WCAU-TV contacts me and asks if I have any information safety manuals, his station obviously forgetting they had pledged to write them and conduct a safety campaign do this after 1986 accident with Cara Crosby.

1996 - Las Vegas station operator places mast into power lines in station parking lot, was hurt.

1996 - Las Vegas van op is reported to have driven down Las Vegas Blvd. with mast fully extended and being broken upon contact with traffic light pole.

1997 - Fatality - Andrew Austin - Greenville, MS. Used rubber strap per station instructions to hold mast elevation lever as written in OSHA notes and final paper.

1997 - Serious burn injuries, small amputations, 2 victims, Kimberly Arms, Davis Bingham, Des Moines, IA. WOI-TV. Kim was severely affected, in coma over a month, has undergone more than 20 surgeries since, more treatment expected. Dave has reconstructed arm with limited use. Further future medical treatment anticipated for both. Had 7 words of warning in a company manual and undocumented hearsay training to educate them on mast safety. It was enough to hold up in court for reduction of fines and free up station from some "serious" citations.

1998 - Reports of masts being "launched" as a result of over pressure, improper maintenance, own seal rings and braces. Nothing new to mast business, but many were old at the time I heard this.

1998 - Beaumont, TX, KBMT ENG truck grounds power line and cuts off power to post office, hotel, restaurant and 200 residences according to newspaper account of incident.

1998 - Pittsburgh, PA. Truck places mast up into centrally located pole with power lines converging from 3 different directions.

1998 - WTAE, Pittsburgh. Mast placed into power lines, reporter and photographer brought to hospital. Reporter burned, operator monitored for shock.

1999 - Fatality - Geoff Fisher - BCTV, British Columbia, Canada. Sigalarm equipped vehicle, Sigalarm out of service long before incident. Fisher had passed safety test 9 months before.

1999 - Mast elevated into power line at shopping mall while manufacturer is conducting tests on warning device. Minor injuries and damage to van.

1999 - Michelle Lima, reporter for KSAT, San Antonio, TX, killed crossing street while packing up live shot. Crew parked across from power lines to avoid that hazard. Station cited for not having written night time work procedures and not providing reflective vests to avoid the hazards of darkness. Station fined $3000. Check stub memo stated: "Contribution."

2000 - Mast fall over damage. WMUR ENG van driven in Concord, NH, with mast elevated, hits traffic light pole and falls onto car. Driver not, or just slightly injured. Approx $40K damage estimated. Not known if driver sued station after.

2000 - 5/2 Alexandria, VA. WTTG van mast elevated into 115,000 volt line. 3 injured less than would be considered severe by nature of incident. OSHA citations, fines of about $8000 after abatement. Cameraman reportedly received 500 stiches in side of face after camera he was holding, wired to truck, exploded.

2000- 5/22 Los Angeles, CA. KABC van mast elevated into power lines, injuring 3, one severely resulting in amputations, extended treatment. CAL-OSH fines amounted to close to $30,000. $25,000 for no training regarding overhead power lines.

2000- 5/27 Cedar Rapids, IA. KGAN tech elevates mast into very apparent overhead power lines grounding 115,000 volts through his feet. Hospitalization and amputations of toes so far, and a "divot" taken out of his head according to one report. IOSHA (Iowa's OSHA) didn't bother to investigate it.

2000 - Van tipped over as its driver reportedly ran a red light going to a possible drowning story.

2000 - WGAL van reportedly leaves school football game with antenna elevated, crew and employees told to hush it up.

2001 - NTSB report states Ruben Rivero at fault for helicopter crash which killed him and photog Rob Pierce after Rivero ascended so abruptly that the main rotor severed the tail of his craft. Rivero was heard to have said "Watch this..." shortly before the accident.

2001 - Summer. WSB van doing roadside live shot gets hit at high speed by drunk driver while crew is set. Crew "tossed" 20 ft away.

2001 - Summer. Portland, OR station crew saves another station's crew person by pounding on van as mast is raised through lower lines and towards power lines.

2001 - September. KWCH van crew escapes electrified van safely after doing everything right. They stayed cool, called for help, got it, followed escape instructions.

2002 - A KTTV, Los Angeles, news van flipped over and crashed. The truck was totaled as well as the equipment inside. Henry Chua, the engineer who operated the truck,was taken to nearby Cedars Sinai Hospital. Mr. Chua had indicated that the truck's brakes may not have been working correctly, although the station saidit regularly services the trucks.

2002 - March - WAAY truck trapped on railroad tracks long enough to be hit by speeding train. Van damaged beyond repair. Crew handled situation well and escaped unharmed, and managed to get a lot of the equipment out of the vehicle before the hit.

2002 - Summer - Reports that 2 ENG truck ops are struck by lightning in 2 seperate incidents in Texas and Tennessee.

2002 - Report that Albuquerque, NM operator drove vehicle into power lines while moving van with mast extended. Operator had been involved in a driving accident in an ENG truck earlier in the year. Operator's employment at station was reportedly terminated.

These are my personal opinions and do not represent the opinions of my station.

© Mark Bell

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