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Am I a Radio Engineer or Just a Security Guard?

Crime Takes a Bite Out of Engineering Schedules and Budgets

Blacktop was installed to cover the vulnerable ground screen and strap at each tower base. When I returned from a three-day engineering conference in October, I found my desk piled with the same stuff I’d left, plus a good bit more.

As I began to go through it, it dawned on me how little of the work I do these days actually has something to do with radio engineering. That was a real revelation, and it gave me pause. Has the world in which we ply our trade really changed that much? Evidently it has.

What do I do with so much of my time that is not related to radio engineering? It really comes down to two categories: post-crime recovery/cleanup and crime prevention.

That statement correctly implies that I spend a lot of time dealing with crime. This comes in a lot of forms, but it’s basically theft and vandalism. In many cases, both happen at the same time. In others, it’s one or the other.


In the Dec. 12, 2007 issue of RW Engineering Extra, I told you about a handgun-toting copper thief who repeatedly hit a tower farm on Red Mountain in Birmingham, Ala. I provided you a dramatic photo of the thief pointing his pistol at a security light. This guy came back day after day, taking bus bars, strap, down leads and anything else he could get his hands on.

A real attention-getter: Tower strobes pulsing with several hundred thousand candelas when the tower base alarm trips. Razor wire discourages the over-the-top approach to tower base entry. In one photo sequence from the security camera, a Birmingham police cruiser was seen doing a drive-by of the site just after the thief left.

In cooperation with our friends at Clear Channel, I got the mayor’s office involved, reminding them that the city’s trunking radio system was on our tower and that if this guy started hacking transmission lines for the copper, the city would be without police, sheriff, fire, ambulance, dog catcher and meter maid radio communications.

Amazingly, the police chief got involved immediately. A trap was set and the thief was caught and arrested. Case closed, or so we thought. More on that later.


Then in February 2008, copper thieves began hitting one of our 50 kW AM sites in Birmingham. They took or destroyed ground screens and removed strap and radial wire, doing far more damage than the scrap or even replacement cost of the copper alone. We spent a couple of months making repairs and “hardening” the site against future copper theft.

We found out early on that the local sheriff’s office was going to be of little help in putting a stop to the theft; we would have to do it ourselves. That site now resembles a prison yard more than an AM transmitter site.

Security measures include:

  • • Razor-wire topped security fences around the tower bases
  • • Multiple electric fence conductors around the inside of the base fences
  • • Blacktop over the ground screens
  • • Armored alarm contacts on the tower fence gates
  • • Alarm sirens at each tower base
  • • High-intensity strobes at each tower base tied into the alarm system
  • • An array of fixed and steerable security cameras with motion detection

Alarm contacts are enclosed in an armored shell at each tower gate, but even if an intruder smashes the box, the alarm goes off. All that may sound excessive, but it’s hard to argue with success. We were being hit a couple of times a week before; since we hardened the site, we have had zero theft from the site.

We have had numerous episodes of theft from other sites around the company. In St. Louis, for example, copper thieves stole the telephone trunk lines feeding our site. They ripped hundreds of feet of the stuff right off the utility poles, cutting it and hauling it off.

We could do nothing to prevent that theft; it occurred well off our property, and the local phone company wasn’t willing to bury the entire span, so it fell to us to come up with non-telco backups for our T1 and telephone lines to the site.

In Colorado, thieves hit our Ruby Hill AM site on two occasions, taking the strap around the tower base area and pulling up as many radials as they could close to the tower base. At that particular site, we are tenants and responsibility for the repairs falls to the landlord, but the damage still affected our coverage and operations.

At about that same time (early September), the Denver KLZ site was hit. Thieves broke into one of the tower base fences and took some copper strap. They also broke into the concrete block tuning house at that tower and took some radial wire that was stored inside (although it must have been too heavy to carry — they dropped the spool on their way off the property).

At that same site, the security lights were broken at two of the towers. The security light on the back of the transmitter building was shot out, and the top beacon on one of the towers had a bullet hole in it.


Radials at this Denver area AM site were ripped out of the dirt from their ends all the way back to the tower bases. These copper thieves knew what they were doing. And then … also in September, thieves broke into a storage barn at that same site, trashing the interior. They also took some old copper transmission line pieces and parts (and I mean old — it was that four-hole flanged 1-5/8 inch rigid that you occasionally see at really old sites).

And then … back on Red Mountain in Birmingham, the same copper thief who had been arrested early in the year began hitting the site again. The police got right on it this time and arrested him again. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of him.

And then … in early October, copper thieves took practically the entire ground system at the KLVZ daytime site north of Brighton, Colo.

These scumbags knew what they were doing too. They evidently used a metal detector to find the ends of the radials, dug down to find the wire and then pulled all the way back to the tower base. At the tower bases themselves, they cut the strap and radials, and then pulled out as many of the radial wires as they could out to the fence. So much has been hacked up I couldn’t figure out a way to fix this ground system other than replace it.

I haven’t mentioned the graffiti problem. The storage barn at the KLZ site has, over the past few years, become a favorite target for graffiti “artists.” As fast as we would paint over the graffiti, they would come back and apply more. Eventually, we gave up. Three sides plus the roof of the barn quickly became covered with graffiti.

A few months ago, I got a citation from the county for failure to remove the graffiti promptly in accordance with some obscure county ordinance. Immediately, I contracted with a painter to wash, prime and paint the whole structure; but knowing that as soon as we provided a clean “canvas,” the graffiti artists would be back, I also contracted with a fence contractor to first install an eight-foot security fence around the whole thing. Of course we had to get a county permit for the fence, which took awhile.

An array of cameras covers all the tower bases. A steerable, zoom-capable camera allows folks at the studio (or anywhere via the Internet) to take a close-up look at anything at the site. I kept the code enforcement people completely informed throughout the process, so it was quite a surprise when a sheriff’s deputy showed up at the office with a summons because we evidently weren’t moving fast enough. I called the district attorney, who was a reasonable fellow (and who was more than a little miffed at the code enforcement folks for dumping a case on his desk which was well on its way to permanent resolution). The case was dismissed immediately, but it cost the company more than $8,000 to secure and paint the storage barn.

So how did I spend my summer and fall, and how do I and our engineers continue to spend a good bit of our time and efforts? It sure isn’t doing radio engineering in any form.

No, we spend our time and efforts fixing the messes criminals make on property owned by our company and taking measures to prevent those messes from recurring. And going forward, instead of budgeting for new transmitters, processors and studio gear that might contribute directly to the bottom line of the company, I will likely be budgeting for fences, cameras, alarm systems, blacktop and other measures to keep the criminals out.

Not one penny of any of this contributes to the bottom line, and the time and labor of our engineering staffs spent implementing these measures takes away from the useful and productive work they would otherwise be doing.

I know with certainty that these thieves and vandals aren’t targeting just my company. Copper theft and site vandalism is epidemic, occurring in markets small and large, all across this nation. That means you may well be dealing with the same stuff in a time when we have to do more with less, when companies are watching the bottom line as never before.

Yes indeed. Our world really has changed that much.

Cris Alexander is the director of engineering at Crawford Broadcasting Company and the SBE’s Broadcast Engineer of the Year.