The recent rash of mishaps involving contact between ENG masts and overhead electrical wires makes it chillingly clear that safety is everyone’s business. Our industry is finally waking up to the fact that a passive awareness of electricity’s power to cripple, maim and kill isn’t enough to keep broadcast employees safe. Stations across the country are implementing ENG safety training courses and requiring everyone involved in newsgathering operations to learn how to work safely in the field.
Stations are also discovering that, to be effective, safety training must be an ongoing process with frequent refresher courses and reviews to maintain a high level of awareness. When was the last time you revisited this important topic? Do you know the basics? The following series of questions is designed to test your Safety IQ. Everyone – reporters, producers, desk personnel, newsroom managers, photographers and truck operators – should be able to answer every question correctly.
- How close can I be to power lines without danger?
- 1 foot
- 5 feet
- 10 feet
- 15 feet
- 20 feet
- How can you tell the difference between electric lines and other utilities such as telephone and cable TV?
- Power lines are always at the top of the pole.
- Wires carrying electricity are more heavily insulated.
- Telephone cables have more slack.
- Other utilities are always "messengered" by attaching them to separate cables.
- You can’t always tell.
- Which power lines are capable of delivering a fatal shock?
- Those at the top of the pole.
- The bare wires attached to pole-mounted transformers.
- Wires running through tree branches.
- Drops between poles and buildings.
- Dead wires with no electricity running through them.
- What is the proper method for leveling a live truck?
- Park with one or more wheels on the curb.
- Drive onto a ramp made of stacked pieces of lumber.
- Seat all occupants on one side of the vehicle.
- Use the built-in jacks.
- Partially deflate tires on the high side of the vehicle.
- What are the responsibilities of the other members of the crew with regard to truck safety?
- Scan overhead for dangers the truck operator might have overlooked.
- Know what to do in case of a mishap.
- Assist in other setup chores until the mast is safely deployed.
- Stay out of the truck until the mast is safely deployed.
- All of the above.
- What should a truck operator do while the mast is being raised?
- Alert the station to standby to receive a signal.
- Remain in the truck.
- Stand outside the truck and observe the mast in motion.
- Begin running cables.
- What should you do if you are in a truck and suspect that the mast may have made contact with a power line?
- Remain in the truck.
- Immediately exit the truck using the appropriate jump and shuffle technique.
- Dial 911 on your cellular phone or radio a request that someone at the station make the call for you.
- Do not allow anyone to approach the truck.
- Ask bystanders to help verify your status before calling emergency responders.
- How close can you safely approach a truck that is in contact with a power line?
- 50 feet
- 25 feet
- 10 feet
- Arm’s length
- None of the above
- What steps should an operator take to ensure that a mast can be raised safely?
- Look up while walking a circle around the truck.
- Use a powerful flashlight at night.
- Locate all nearby utility poles and buildings.
- Never extend the mast through tree branches.
- Ask other truck operators if the area is safe.
- All of the above
- What is the safest way to exit a truck that is in contact with a power line?
- Wait until the electric company shuts off the power.
- Leap as far as you can from the nearest door.
- Follow the directions of the first arriving public safety officer.
- Jump and land with both feet together and without letting any other part of your body touch either the vehicle or the ground.
- Allow rescuers to lift you out in a manner that will prevent you from touching the ground.
Here are the answers. Congratulations if you got them all right. If you missed even one, give yourself an F. And remember, this may be the only time you get a second chance to choose the right answers.
While the potential to draw an arc from even the highest voltage transmission lines is generally restricted to distances of less than 3 feet, most experts agree that maintaining 15 feet between overhead lines and an extended mast provides the best margin of safety for anyone working in or around a news vehicle. And while little practice is required to become adept at estimating this distance on the ground, great care must be taken to ensure that the 15-foot clearance measured on the pavement will be maintained at the top of an elevated mast. Irregularities in paved surfaces, parking on hills, and crowned roads that tilt toward the curb all cause the mast to lean as it extends. An inch or two of tilt on the ground, often barely noticeable at street level, can result in a fully extended antenna being two or three feet out of line with its starting position atop the vehicle.
Winds are another hazard that can compromise your safety zone. Even a moderate breeze will cause a noticeable amount of sway in any mast.
Also, unless you are parked on hard pavement, it is important to evaluate the condition of the ground under your tires. Wet or muddy soil that shifts after you’ve set up can result in a significant relocation of the top of an extended mast.
Staying clear of the lines at the top of the pole, which are certain to carry the highest voltages, is not going to keep you safe. Relying on your own powers of observation to identify telephone and coaxial cables among the myriad of wires strung between most utility poles is just asking for trouble. It’s not always easy to tell them apart, especially at night.
Wires running between poles aren’t the only sources of danger. Service drops, the wires branching off from poles that deliver electricity to individual customers, are usually interwoven with, and at nearly the same height as, the lines that provide non-lethal connections to telephone and cable TV. Insulation, there primarily to keep adjacent low-voltage wires from shorting together, can become cracked or otherwise ineffective with age and offers no protection at high voltages.
3-A, B, C, D & E
No power line may be presumed to be safe. Just because the line’s voltage isn’t measured in kilovolts doesn’t mean it can’t kill you. Even a single conductor of a residential service drop snaking through the branches of a poorly pruned tree can provide a heart-stopping jolt of 110 volts. And no electric line, whether on the ground or in the air, can be trusted not to shock you unless the power company provides assurances that the power is off and that it will not be turned back on.
4-A & B
Using stabilizing jacks to level a truck is a common operational error, one that could have fatal consequences if jacks are used on uneven ground to avoid angling a mast into nearby wires. Intended to prevent a truck from rocking when the mast is subjected to gusty winds or a when a crew member steps onto a door sill, these jacks are designed to take some of the load off an ENG truck’s suspension system, not support the entire weight of the truck. Their small size, relatively narrow footprint, and the possibility that they may sink, fail, or unintentionally be retracted dictate that they are not to be trusted with anyone’s life.
It only takes a little nudge from the bumper of another vehicle to destabilize a van supported by one popular type of jack. Bumped from behind, the stabilized vehicle can rotate right off its self-stowing swingaway jacks.
Safety-conscious truck operators know that parking with one or two wheels on the curb is the quickest and safest way to level their vehicle. Easing the truck onto one or a series of stacked 2x8 planks takes a little more effort, but once the brakes are set and the wheels chocked, this method is equally safe.
Everyone who works out of a live truck – reporters, photographers, producers and technicians – should be on the lookout for hazards and alert to possible oversights by another member of their team. Some stations’ safety rules require that everyone exit the truck while the mast is being deployed. Widespread adoption of this procedure would not only save lives and prevent injury by keeping everyone out of harm’s way in the event of a mast mishap, but would also reduce the number of mast-up accidents by focusing additional eyeballs on potential hazards or operating errors.
Raising the mast is the critical event, the time when mistakes and oversights can compound into a single disastrous moment. The operator should be outside the truck where he or she can observe the top of the mast as it is lifted skyward, attention focused on the task at hand. We are rarely in such a rush that a 2- or 3-minute timeout to raise the antenna will cause you to miss your slot. And if it does, well, no story is worth a life.
7-A, C, D
While you might expect the introduction of a metal mast into contact with an energized power line to be accompanied by sparks, smoke, and even flame, that is not always the case. The fireworks usually begin when the electricity in the power line finds a way to flow to the earth. A critical factor in ENG safety awareness is the knowledge of how to avoid becoming part of any errant electricity’s path to ground.
If you even suspect that the truck you are in has made contact with a power line, and there is no smoke or fire in the operating compartment that presents an immediate hazard, the smartest thing may be to remain in the truck, call 911 to summon assistance, and shout or otherwise warn passersby not to approach the vehicle lest they unwittingly become the missing link that allows electrical current to complete its path to ground.
A "jump-and-shuffle" exit could expose you to a potentially lethal shock and should only be used as a last resort.
There is no simple answer to the question of how close is safe when electricity is flowing into the ground. Two critical elements, the amount of voltage involved and the electrical characteristics of the earth around the energized truck, are impossible to predict. Wayward electricity can also be present on any cables – electrical, coaxial and audio – that are connected to the truck, extending the danger zone far beyond the immediate area. Stay well away and leave the heroics to trained rescue personnel.
9-A, B, C & D
Never raise a mast where you can’t see the entire path and have not confirmed it to be free of power lines within a mandatory 15-foot margin of safety. Wires are nearly invisible in the dark, almost indistinguishable when the weather is bad, and hard to see when you are in a hurry. Asking someone else to point out hazards they’ve already spotted is a good idea, but should never be a substitute for making your own thorough survey of the area.
Clearly the safest way to evacuate a truck that is known (or even suspected) to be in contact with a power line is to wait until a power company representative arrives on-scene and assures you that there is no danger. Then you can breathe a sigh of relief and walk away from the truck. Always remember that analysis of mast-up accidents confirms that it may be safer to remain in the vehicle than to risk becoming a conductor for the electrical energy that is seeking a path to the earth. It is also important to remember that not all public safety personnel may be properly trained on the hazards of exiting a vehicle, which has become electrified. Instructions from first-responders to evacuate the truck must be carefully evaluated and executed.
Of course all bets are off if the vehicle catches fire or begins to fill with toxic fumes. When immediate evacuation is your only option, remember that there are more points for style than for distance in this event. Exit via the operating compartment door if at all possible. Swinging these doors all the way open and standing in this large opening offers the best chance to begin your jump with both feet together and avoid touching anything else along the way. Don’t leap for the moon. Remember that the area around the truck may also be electrified. If you lose your balance and make a three point landing, you’re likely to become a conductor between the different voltages that are present on the surface of the earth.
Finally, don’t compound the error that put you in danger by reacting with haste. There are many documented instances where the initial error that put an ENG truck into contact with live wires only resulted in serious injury because the victims and would-be rescuers made the wrong choices. Never trade away a safe spot or attempt to rescue an electrocution victim unless you're sure the option you’ve chosen will not make matters worse.