ENG: Staying Safe

ENG truck makers say safety alarms must be combined with training
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ENG truck makers say safety alarms must be combined with training

PHILADELPHIA

ENG truck safety is not just a good idea; it's a matter of life and death. This fact has been borne out by a slew of horrendous electrical accidents, which resulted in the untimely death or lifelong injuries suffered by truck personnel.

Electrical accidents occur when the truck's mast-which can raise an antenna as much as 56 feet from the truck roof for line-of-sight transmission-is elevated in close proximity to power lines. When the mast hits a power line, people on or around the truck can suffer severe electrical burns when they touch the truck, pavement or any other surface that becomes electrified.

Proponents of ENG truck safety insist that such accidents are preventable by using safety devices, such as D-TEC and SIGALARM, which activate audio and visual alarms when they detect electrical danger.

DETECTING TROUBLE

Developed by Will-Burt Co., the D-TEC Mast Monitor provides AC field detection, object sonar detection, tilt sensor, above the mast illumination and an anticollision system that automatically stops mast extension for protection from overhead hazards.

But just as seatbelts can only save lives if they're worn properly, "It's imperative that truck crews be trained to understand and respect the truck's safety systems," says Steven Pinkley, sales manager for Will-Burt in Orrville, Ohio. "And all truck personnel must be trained and periodically re-trained on the proper procedures to follow should they find themselves in potentially dangerous electrical circumstances. I can't stress training enough."

SIGALARM is a solid-state electronic safety system used for detecting the electrostatic field of any AC power line. It provides both audible and visual warning signals to alert the operator and attendant ground personnel when the boom comes within proximity of an energized high-voltage power line.

"Even when ground personnel are looking up, there might be a depth perception problem that makes it difficult to discern the distance between the mast and the power line," says Lance Burney, CEO of Allied Safety Systems Inc., which markets SIGALARM.

"SIGALARM is an automatic 'electronic eye' that's hardwired to the switch that raises the mast, and so, if it detects a danger, it can stop the mast from going up further," he says. "The operator would then lower the mast and move the truck to another spot."

In December 2002, safety and training standards were spelled out for the first time in a set of regulations established by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (CAL-OSHA). The guidelines include: Use of switches that require constant pressure to raise the mast; level indicators to ensure that the ground is level; spotlights to enable visible inspection of the mast at night; audio and visual warning indicators to prevent moving the vehicle while the mast is raised; and extensive employee training about the hazards of electrical energy in relation to ENG vehicle operations.

HIGHLY CHARGED ISSUE

Because truck accidents can be costly-both in terms of human life and property damage-there have been many lawsuits filed on behalf of ENG accident victims.

"With this country's complex product liability laws, literally every company with a product touching the mast can be held liable, and the damages can be considerable," says Mark Bell, president of Safety Awareness/Certification Associates, in Cohasset, Mass. As a highly respected ENG safety expert, Bell provides ENG safety training and seminars, publishes the monthly "ENG Safety Newsletter," and provides a wealth of information on his Web site www.engsafety.com.

"Because they don't want to see people hurt, many vendors and station groups have become passionate about installing safety devices onto all their ENG and SNG trucks, and have done a phenomenal job of employing ENG safety devices and professional practices like those outlined by CAL-OSHA," says Bell.

"But while safety devices like SIGALARM and D-TEC only add about $3,500 to an ENG vehicle averaging about $150,000, some truck buyers don't see the value of [purchasing] those safety options on their new vehicles," says Bell. "And there's the unfortunate reality that many truck crews jury-rig the safety systems to override them, such as using bungee cords to hold up the mast switch so they don't have to stand out there and hold it themselves."

Bell explained that the benefit of requiring operators to continuously apply handheld pressure on mast switches located on the exterior of the truck-a process that can take three to four minutes-is that they'd be more likely to look up and see obstructions like power lines and trees. While a fatality can occur by hitting a 19,900 V power line, Bell indicated that some ENG truck accidents involved hitting power lines of 100,000 V or more.

HURRY UP SAFELY

"Another safety issue is to make sure the mast has been fully stowed before you drive away, even if you're sure there are no power lines around," says Mitch Farris, regional sales manager for Shook Mobile Technology, a leading manufacturer of ENG vehicles, in San Antonio. "When I was a news director, if you drove off with the mast up in one of my trucks, I would have fired you." Farris, who is based in Shook's New Smyrna Beach, Fla., office, was a member of the CAL-OSHA safety committee and has more than 20 years experience in broadcast news.

Now, with the trucks that Shook manufactures, Farris says, "If the operator tries to drive one of our trucks away with the mast up, a 27-decibel alarm sounds right behind his ear, plus there's a visual alarm on the dashboard."

Although the problem is greater with the tall masts on ENG trucks, Farris says, Shook put alarms on SNG trucks too. "An SNG truck is about 12 feet 6 inches high, and when you add the satellite antenna of about 2.4 meters, plus the mounting hardware, it brings the height to about 20 feet," Farris says. "So it's judicious to have an alarm on it.

"Also, your parking spot may be 40 feet away from a power line, but if the road is listing [tilting] at a 20-degree angle, you might actually be 25 feet closer because of the 'crown' of the road," Farris adds.

SAFETY IN MOTION

While vendors of ENG trucks all stress that vehicles cannot be moved while a tall mast is raised because it's a safety hazard, Digital COFDM transmission is an alternative technology that offers mobility without those safety limitations.

Instead of needing to raise a mast high into the air and position the antenna to establish a line-of-sight transmission, COFDM systems typically use a 1-foot Omni antenna (1 to 2 inches in diameter), on the roof of the ENG/SNG vehicle, and it emits signals in 360-degrees.

"Because a line-of-sight is not necessary for these signals to reach their central receive site, many broadcasters are finding that digital COFDM enables them to get signals out of urban areas, such as The United Nations district in New York, that present problems for analog microwave systems," says Dan McIntyre, vice president of sales and marketing for Microwave Radio Communications (MRC), in Billerica, Mass. "And, since COFDM typically uses a smaller, low-profile Omni antenna to get the signal back to the studio, many are recognizing that there's also an attractive safety benefit

"Also, with COFDM, the vehicle can transmit the live shot while it is in motion-even around corners and under bridges-to follow a breaking news story," added McIntyre. MRC offers three complementary products that employ this relatively new COFDM technology. The MRC CodeRunner 2 is an Analog/Digital Portable Transmitter for ENG and SNG feeds that uses an antenna-mounted RF unit and an interior van-mounted control shelf. It uses an integrated MPEG 4:2:2 encoding and DVB-T COFDM modulation as well as the CodeRunner 4 Central Receiver. MRC also offers Strata, which is like the CodeRunner only it's designed to be used entirely outside; and the REPORTER is a camera-back COFDM radio (less than 3 pounds), which can transmit the signal from the camera to the van or directly to the receive site.

OVERWEIGHT TRUCKS

Another commonly overlooked safety hazard is loading up ENG and SNG trucks with cameras, editing, and other TV production equipment, causing the load to exceed the manufacturer's Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, or GVWR, the total weight that vehicle was designed to support.

Doug McKay, national sales manager for Frontline Communications, in Clearwater, Fla, also participated on the CAL/OSHA safety committee. He said Frontline has been safety-conscious since it began building broadcast vehicles 10 years ago and applies that same philosophy to the company's new acquisition, Winemiller Communications, a supplier of re-manufactured ENG vehicles.

"We won't deliver any truck that exceeds the factory's GVWR. On the showroom floor, we put signs on them giving the vehicle's total weight including the ENG, SNG, or other production gear we've installed so they know how much payload remains for other items they want to add," he says.

Frontline also installs a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor and alarm in its trucks-and sometimes two or three in bigger SNG trucks-to alert operators to any build-up of the deadly, odorless gas inside the truck. "Safety is such a priority to us that we give our customers a VHS tape about safety at the time of sale, and have them sign a form acknowledging that we have given them detailed documentation explaining all the safety features of the truck," says McKay.

ENG safety is not limited to electrical or CO dangers. When there's no alarm, operators have been known to forget to stow the mast, then drive under bridges and into tunnels only to have the mast break off. A raised mast can also cause a vehicle to tip over. It's also possible for the mast to get frozen in the upright position, and for lightning to strike the mast.

"Safety is of paramount importance," says Shook's Farris. "No matter how much pressure there is to get that news story, ENG truck safety has to come first."