Dangerous reality

Many may argue that a broadcast engineer’s primary mission is to keep the work flowing and the transmitter on the air. True, but we must also recognize that a much higher, yet far lower profile mission trumps all else: safety.

While busy pioneering a digital new world, necessarily distracted by bytes, packets and syntax errors, it can be easy to forget a most basic reality common to all broadcast studios. That is that broadcast studios and remotes tend to attract — how can I say this tactfully — some unusual characters. You don’t have to be a broadcast engineer long to learn it. No, I’m not talking about fellow station employees. I’m talking about unwanted, agitated, out-of-control surprise visitors who show up when you least expect it.

That was the case on a quiet Wednesday morning last month in Topeka, Kansas, market 139 and birthplace of the NewTek VideoToaster. It doesn’t seem like a time or place for an agitated stranger to smash the lobby door of a broadcast television station with a lamp, smack the news director, get in a group scuffle and stab the sales manager. But, that’s exactly what happened at 9:20 a.m. at WIBW a dozen or so days ago. The story is well worth repeating.

The original source is from the WIBW website, www.wibw.com, and what follows includes additional details from chief engineer Cary Lahnum.

A man broke into WIBW-TV on May 23, attacking several employees and stabbing one. His name was Ray Miles. He was formally charged the next day with two charges of aggravated battery, one charge of aggravated burglary, criminal threat, battery and criminal damage to property. Bond was set at $100,000.

What happened
The WIBW front lobby is secured by glass doors that are unlocked by solenoid. Before his violent outburst, Miles was allowed into the front lobby, and receptionist Lynda Janes called news director Jon Janes to talk with him. The man told Janes he was upset by the way the VA was handling his case. Janes explained to the man that he needs to discuss the issue with the VA and that WIBW couldn't help him at this time.

Miles left the building, returned about 10 minutes later and became agitated when Lynda Janes and weatherman Rob Peppers refused to let him in. When he saw Peppers pick up the phone to call police, the man pushed aside a sofa in the entryway, unplugged a brass lamp and smashed the glass front doors with it. He then reached through to open the door

Lynda and Rob ran ahead of him toward the newsroom to warn other employees. Rob stopped in the master control area with the intent of issuing a page, while Lynda alerted newsroom employees, who evacuated to the rear garage area.

"He told me to hit him," said Dylan Schoonover, an employee who saw the man coming down a hallway near the newsroom edit bays. Schoonover slid out a side door unharmed and convened with other staff outside.

Master control operator Joe Garrett saw the man walk down a hallway after Lynda ran by, alerting everyone to the situation. He said as he turned and came back into master control to call 911, he saw a male walk by master control. He was roughly 5’8”, with a black and green backpack slung over his shoulder

A few moments later, Garrett watched on the security camera, while still on the phone with 911, as several employees tackled the man near an east exit of the building.

Miles had made it to the newsroom, and then turned around and started back toward the front of the building, encountering news director Jon Janes along the way. Miles shoved Janes into a wall, knocking him down. WIBW sales manager Roger Brokke witnessed what happened and tried to stop Miles, but Miles punched him in the head. Chief engineer Cary Lahnum and sales associate Greg Palmer then attempted to tackle Miles, with Brokke and Janes joining in.

The man was heard yelling during the struggle that he was going to kill everyone. The foursome appeared to have Miles subdued when Brokke, who had already been bitten three times in the back, felt a pain in his hip. He says he looked down to see a knife going into his leg and alerted his coworkers. Four other employees who had arrived in the hallway then joined in, holding Miles down and trying to kick the knife out of his hand.

In surveillance video, Miles is seen punching two employees. Those workers and two others tackle him. They appear to have him subdued when Brokke starts to sit up and other workers join the pile. That’s the moment Brokke feels himself being stabbed and sees the man has somehow taken out a knife.

Brokke and Palmer both suffered cuts and were taken by ambulance to Topeka hospitals. Lahnum suffered a black eye and Janes also had bruises, but they did not seek medical treatment.

The employees held the suspect down until police arrived. Miles was taken to the hospital for treatment and booked in the Shawnee County Jail Wednesday afternoon.

Jon Janes says he has spoken with Miles once before, on March 22, when he came to the station to see about having a story done on the VA mistreating him. Janes also sent him away at that time, and Miles became angry and left.

Securing plate glass
The people at WIBW thought their station was secure. One week after the incident, Chief Engineer Cary Lahnum says he is installing 3M security window film on windows and doors so broken glass will not shatter. The film is available in various thicknesses up to 47 mils. Info on security window film can be found here. Lahnum also said the station would be replacing the heavy lobby lamps with lighter ones.

The question to consider is this: What if a similar situation occurred in your facility right now?

Does your station have a plan, and is everyone familiar with it? Do you have a panic button to the local cop shop? Does it also trigger a local alarm in the newsroom or master control? What happens until help arrives?

How does the word get out? Is there a facility evacuation code word? Do you have furniture or lamps in the lobby that could be used as a tool or weapon? What will happen when lobby or door glass is smashed? How secure are access codes, locks and door frames? Look for gaps, weaknesses and open invitations. Think out of the box.

The people at WIBW were lucky. It could have been so much worse. I can’t imagine how intense the event must have been. Let it serve as a reminder that the general public includes some people who, for one reason or another, are obsessed with a beef and crave broadcast attention. Broadcast studios can be a last-resort target.

While studying bits, bytes and facility workflows, stay grounded in the analog world of reality. Take time to thoroughly evaluate and question all aspects of your station’s physical security. Get everyone at the facility involved, because safety and security is everyone’s business. It only takes one unhinged guest with an impulse that breeches security to transform your broadcast TV station from a trusted news source to today’s lead story.

Video of the break-in and scuffle can be seen here.

The author thanks WIBW chief engineer Cary Lahnum and operations director Mike Turner for their input and permission to use the story. Photos courtesy of WIBW-TV.