Safety rules

The TV broadcast industry is doing its best to make headway through an alphabet soup of new technology and the excitement and hyperbole that accompanies it. As if the conversion to digital technology wasn’t enough, engineers are now being told 3-D, HDTV, 3G, mobile DTV, OTT, IPTV, cloud computing and myriad other digital technologies are about to change the market and our jobs even more. Most broadcast engineers, managers and chief engineers have their hands full keeping transmitters on the air, newsrooms productive and the “technical difficulties” graphic safely in storage.

Amid all the rapid change and responsibility it is easy to forget, as some might say, to stop and smell the roses. In this case, instead of roses, let’s step back and take in the big picture, specifically the safety of facilities, employees and guests.

There some very important people working at your station or facility, but the most important person is you. Keeping people and equipment safe and functioning is often in the purview of the engineering department. Everyone at the station depends on broadcast engineers and engineering managers to provide the safest work environment possible. Security is arguably an equally important responsibility, but it is beyond the scope of this newsletter installment.

I once worked at a station where one of its most outspoken news reporters began complaining loudly that the station didn’t have enough fire extinguishers. The specific example he cited was that there weren’t any fire extinguishers in the newsroom. A walk around the newsroom seemed to verify that indeed he might be correct, as there were no extinguishers in sight. However, a more thorough inspection revealed that right next to this particular reporter’s desk was a fire extinguisher hung on a support column, which he was in the habit of using for a coat rack. Yes, there was an extinguisher in the newsroom, but in fact, it may as well not have existed because it was usually hidden under his coat.

Perhaps your station or facility is insured by a company that sends a professional safety engineer to inspect your building every so often, or maybe the local fire department regularly inspects your building. If so, help is always welcome, but don’t expect an outsider to know of all the nuances of a TV station, particularly your TV station, like you do. Whether you are visited regularly, randomly or never, safety leadership is always up to you. Note the word “leadership,” because it is nearly impossible to ensure people’s safety without their help, cooperation and enthusiasm.

Many station engineering departments have developed a checklist to remind them what to inspect and when. Usually this consists of verifying the pressure in fire extinguishers and checking the sprinkler system. It is equally important, however, for all engineers to be alert at all times for situations that might compromise safety. Safety must be dealt with on two levels. One is to recognize and eliminate sources that increase the danger of combustion or electrocution. The other is the uncompromising prevention of the same. Thank goodness, most stations have banned smoking in or around station buildings and vehicles, but don’t let the ban relax your vigilance.

One of the more common and easily overlooked sources of danger around stations is space heaters. TV stations are, by nature, usually kept cooler than your average office building. This cooler environment can inspire some to bring a space heater from home and plug it into a convenient outlet, sometimes with an old extension cord. Your station may have a rule that prohibits space heaters, but not everybody always abides by all the rules, especially if they’re cold. After the station offices are closed, a thorough walking visual inspection around and under desks could reveal such a potential hazard.

Another area in facilities where the potential for fire or electrocution is greater is in and around the battery-charging area. Every station is different, but it’s not impossible for batteries and chargers to overheat, and often the number of electrical outlets needed to plug in all the chargers exceeds the number in the wall. I’ve seen stations where home-made extension cords were built with 20A outlets in a quad box connected with a heavy-duty studio light cord to a 15A plug on the other end. Necessity is the mother of invention, and whoever built that cord surely had a good reason at the time, but this type of home-made extension cord is dangerous and has no place in any facility, ENG or OB vehicle. At a minimum, always use an extension with a built-in circuit breaker.

Speaking of electricity, have you checked the polarity of all the outlets in your facility and your station’s ENG, SNG or OB vehicles lately? There are a variety of electrical polarity testers on the market, and owning and regularly using one is guaranteed to improve safety.

In ENG, SNG and OB vehicles, the physical wiring often jiggles and shifts while in transit. In one sports truck I know of, built by a leading sports truck supplier, the AC mains supply cables were routed through grommets in holes in the chassis. A grommet fell off one of the holes, and the cable wore the insulation off, rubbing against the trailer chassis and resulting in a grounding issue. The problem was discovered when the truck plugged its I/O panel into another sports truck’s panel. Fortunately, only breakers blew; under the right conditions, someone holding the metal rail walking down the stairs to the parking lot surface could have stepped in a puddle of water and suffered a fatal shock. The problem could have been discovered with a polarity tester.

It is always best to hire licensed professional electricians to install electrical wiring and outlets, but that’s not always possible or practical. Many broadcast engineers are from the school of circuit-level electronics where white wires are often hot and black wires are neutral or chassis-ground. And while we all know the National Electrical Code is the opposite, i.e. black is hot, white is neutral and green is ground, under the right pressure and circumstances, a non-electrician broadcast engineer could accidently confuse which was which. Several years ago, one of the largest transmitter manufacturers in the world installed a new TV transmitter at my station. A couple of weeks after, we plugged a soldering iron into an auxiliary outlet on the transmitter and blew a circuit breaker when the iron tip touched the chassis. Yep, the auxiliary outlet was wired backward.

Inside a facility or outside in a station vehicle, eliminating fire and electrical hazards and maximizing protection is paramount to everyone’s safety. Outside a facility, safety issues are more complex. When looking for safety issues, always consider the worse case, which usually would be hard rain or ice. Grounding and wiring conforming to national code can make the difference between safety and tragedy, but don’t assume anything is wired correctly, or that correct wiring stays correct. You never know who thought they were doing you a favor by performing a little electrical repair and not telling anyone. Check and verify the proper operation and physical condition of all electrical outlets during routine safety inspections.

Many facilities have indoor parking for news cruisers, ENG and SNG vehicles. Sometimes, parking garages and remote transmitter buildings are also storage areas for lawn equipment, which can leak flammable fluids. A daily inspection of the station’s indoor parking area with your eyes and nose could reveal a potential problem. When news breaks, most news people are too busy to pay attention to such details if they aren’t obvious.

Gasoline storage, in small portable containers such as for a lawn mower or weed eater, is an extremely high risk worthy of avoiding. Don’t store gasoline indoors. If there are no alternatives, try to use all the gas in the lawn equipment before putting it away and empty portable gas containers into station vehicles outdoors after the lawn work is complete.

It’s also not too unusual to find a greasy rag or two on a parking garage bench or in an open waste can. Greasy rags can spontaneously combust and should be allowed to dry outdoors and disposed of in a covered dumpster.

That being said, I’ve seen a news producer to two almost “spontaneously combust,” without anything flammable in sight, but that’s another story.