Experience Brings Important Lessons About Tower Work
     

Fig. 1: Licensed height of the antenna is 121 meters. This is a 300-foot tape that was started at 300 feet AGL, so the antenna was installed at approximately 456 feet, or 139 meters.
In years gone by, most regions had a local tower contractor that broadcasters in the area could count on to take care of relamping, painting, hanging antennas and providing emergency service when needed. Broadcast engineers in the area would have this contractor on speed dial and they were probably on a first-name basis with him. This was certainly the case in all the markets where my company owned stations and clusters.

With the evolution of the wireless industry, the situation changed. Tower workers who originally had a lot of spare time between jobs and projects suddenly found themselves in demand, quite often for work that was a lot easier, safer and better paying than the local broadcasters could afford.

Broadcasters began to find themselves way back in the queue when they called their local tower contractor, and many had to resort to out-of-state crews to get their work done. Still, many local contractors felt obligated to take care of their long-term customers, and they would do their best to work them in. Over time, however, especially as people retired or companies were sold, those relationships dissolved, leaving broadcasters with few options for tower work.

If you ask me about the single, hardest aspect of my job as director of engineering of a medium-sized radio group, I would not hesitate to tell you that it is finding and keeping skilled, trustworthy tower contractors. When I do find such a contractor, I usually stick with them, but as I have found in recent years, even that is no guarantee of good performance. I have even had some disasters result from using a contractor that I had good experience with in the past — more on that later.

Over the years, I have learned a few things in my dealings with tower contractors. By sharing some of these things, it’s my hope that you can avoid some of the aggravations and expenses I have been stuck with.

Lesson #1: Thoroughly vet the contractor.

This is not as easy as it seems. For one thing, because tower crews are so much in demand, many can take or leave whatever work you may have for them. If you press them too hard for references, they may just walk (or more likely, fail to return calls or answer emails), leaving you to start over with your search.

Fig. 2: This elevation adjustment was stripped and seized because tower workers did not follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
In my experience, the best way to vet a tower contractor is to talk to other broadcasters, particularly broadcast engineers. Ask them who they have used for tower work recently and what their experiences with those contractors have been. Did they keep their time commitments? Were they safe? Were they competent? Did they complete the work as expected? Who was the foreman or supervisor on the crew?

One thing to watch out for: Large, national tower contractors that subcontract much of their work. I found out the hard way that just because one crew was outstanding and did great work, other crews that work for that company may be outstanding in a whole different sense and do terrible work. That’s why I like to ask who the supervisor was when I get a recommendation from another broadcaster. That ties the contractor and the good reference to a specific person. You can then ask for (insist on!) that particular crew for your job.

Lesson #2: Check the contractor’s insurance coverage.

Get it from the contractor’s insurance carrier, not the contractor himself, and have the carrier show your company as “also insured” on the certificate. Most contractors carry a $1 million liability policy. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not. What if there is an accident and one or more people are hurt or killed? Lawsuits will result and $1 million won’t begin to pay the claims. What if a mistake is made and the tower falls? What if a fire is started that spreads to nearby properties? I like to see at least $5–$10 million in excess (umbrella) coverage in addition to the liability coverage. Also make sure the contractor has workman’s compensation insurance in compliance with the laws of your state.

Why get the certificate of insurance from the carrier and not from the contractor? How easy would it be for an unscrupulous contractor to change the effective dates and amounts on a certificate before faxing or emailing it to you? If it comes directly from the carrier, not only do you have some assurance of its authenticity, but you also get on “the list” so that when coverage lapses for non-payment or non-renewal, you get notified.

Lesson #3: Make sure the contractor is properly licensed.

What? We’ve never done this before. Why now? It’s because many jurisdictions require contractors working in the area to be licensed and insured. It’s easy enough to find out. Start with a call to your county or city offices and ask. If licensing or registration is required, have the contractor provide a copy of his credentials. I can tell you from experience that if something goes wrong and it turns out that contractor licensing was required but the contractor was not licensed, you could be on the hook for that violation. Don’t ask how I know this.

Lesson #4: Establish the contractor/owner relationship.

A decade or so ago, I hired an attorney that specializes in OSHA work to go through the OSHA rules that impact telecommunications tower work and make operational recommendations to me. One thing that came out of that was a simple, three-paragraph addendum to whatever contract is used. This addendum establishes the contractor/owner relationship and responsibilities. It played a huge part in some litigation a few years later — to our benefit.

Fig. 3: The unused data port on the radio was left uncapped and the ground wire is missing. (Note the empty threaded hole to the left of the open data port where the ground cable should attach). Also note the great weatherproofing job on the other data cable.
The idea is that you want the contractor to be responsible for supervising his workers. You can communicate the “what” to the contractor and even discuss the “how,” but it’s the contractor’s job to instruct and supervise his crew members. Trust me, if you step into the supervisor role, you open yourself and your company up to a host of potential liability.

This amendment also establishes that workers on the tower will not enter certain areas on the tower or property until you have advised that excitation has been removed or power reduced to levels that ensure worker safety. Again, this does not put you in the supervisory role. Instead, it establishes who does what and when, keeping the contractor in the supervisory role.

Lesson #5: Insist on photographic documentation of the work.

Unless trained and properly equipped, broadcast engineers generally cannot climb up a tower to inspect the work done above ground level. So what assurance do you have that the work was done properly and in accordance with your specifications?

The advent of the digital camera has done a lot for broadcast engineers, especially when it comes to tower inspections, tower mapping and verification of tower work. It’s nothing for a tower worker to carry a small digital camera in his bolt bag to take photos. If nothing else, he can use his cellphone.

Insist that the tower contractor fully photographically document their work so that at the end of the day, you can look to be sure things were done right. Put it in the contract to make it a condition precedent to payment. Not only will this let you look at the work, but it will hold tower workers to a higher standard of performance because they know you will be carefully looking at their work.

A TYPICAL EXAMPLE

Recently I hired a reputable tower contractor that we had done business with for years to install a carrier-grade Part 101 11 GHz microwave link in one of our markets. Everything was done, but the link did not work. The signal was off by 30+ dB in both directions. The contractor eventually gave up and said he could do no more. Despite a perfectly clear and relatively short path, –67 dBm was about as good a receive signal as we could get in either direction when we should have signal in the mid-30s.

I hired a different contractor, one that specializes in wireless backhauls and other carrier infrastructure, to go up and look. What that contractor found and showed me in photographs was shocking.

Fig. 4: The azimuth adjustment is not even connected. Note the threaded rod sticking out to the right. This should be secured in a bracket on the pole to facilitate fine azimuth adjustment of the antenna. At 11 GHz, there’s no way to “bump” the antenna in to proper alignment.
On one end of the link, the antenna was some 60 feet higher than the licensed center of radiation. (see Fig. 1) The azimuth adjustment mechanism was installed upside down (Fig. 2). The elevation adjustment mechanism was stripped, seized and ruined. The ground cable we provided to electrically bond the radio (which mounts directly on the back of the antenna) was missing, and the weatherproof cap that goes on the unused data port was missing (Fig. 3).

On the other end of the link, the azimuth adjustment mechanism was completely disconnected (Fig. 4) and flopping in the breeze. The elevation adjustment mechanism was ruined and the antenna was pointing up (and stuck) at 5–10 degrees. As on the other end, the unused data port was left open, exposing the interior of the radio to the elements.

I counted myself fortunate that this link did not work properly. Otherwise I would not have sent the other crew up to find all the problems with the installation. Lesson learned: Insist on photos, lots of them, of the completed work.

The original contractor did eventually come back out and fix all the problems, which included replacing the ruined antenna brackets, and you can bet he provided me with photos documenting the work. The first set of those photos showed that even after going over the manufacturer’s installation instructions with him carefully and providing him a copy of the photographically-illustrated and annotated manual, he still got the azimuth adjustments on upside down. Back up he went to get it right, and he brought me photos to show it.

The bad news is that the link still does not work. One of the radios is dead, which could well be because it has water damage from the open data port. We won’t know until we can get another crew up the tower to pull that radio down.

KEEP THE GOOD ONES

Finding a competent, trustworthy tower contractor can be a real challenge in many locations. If you have an established relationship with one in your area, count yourself fortunate and take steps to cement that relationship. If you’re like the rest of us, be careful in your search. Vet prospects carefully. Check their insurance coverage. Make sure they are licensed if such is required. Pay close attention to the contract language. Finally, insist on photographic documentation of the work. The best surprise is no surprise.

Cris Alexander is the director of engineering at Crawford Broadcasting and a past recipient of SBE’s Broadcast Engineer of the Year award.


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