Tracy: TV Repack Work Requires Different Climber Skills Than Wireless

The National Association of Tower Erectors is recruiting potential climbers for the television channel repack. NATE Chairman Jim Tracy testified to lawmakers on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee last Thursday. Tracy, who’s also the CEO of Legacy Telecommunications of Burley, WA, said the tower industry is facing several challenges at once, creating the “perfect storm” for its labor force.

In addition to the repack, NATE is also concerned with the safety of climbers on wireless towers as workers meet the build-out demands of the transition to 5G, FirstNet and perhaps upcoming FAA tower marking changes. Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson, spoke with Tracy after the hearing to learn more about the repack work.

IT: Broadcast engineers tell me there’s a great difference between working on a broadcast tower and working on a wireless tower. The broadcast towers are taller. The antennas are heavier. Please tell me what the differences are.

Tracy: If you look at cellular, the antennas are going to range anywhere from 20 to 100 pounds, sometimes a little over that. On the broadcast side, they’re going to start in the low hundreds and go into the tens of thousands of pounds. The average height of all the repacking stations is at the 800-foot level and the average height of a cellular facility is going to be 200 feet or less. Continue reading

IT: Does that mean workers need to be trained differently, depending on the tower?

Tracy: It is a different skillset, by and large because you’re talking about using either a helicopter or a gin pole and a winch to create the opportunity to hang either a heavy side-mount antenna or especially a top-mount antenna for a broadcast tower.

IT: To get to the point you were making with the committee. You’ve got all this work coming up, all happening at the same time — as you said, “the perfect storm.” How are you going to recruit people?

Tracy: At NATE, we’re working hard to put together videos. The first is called the “Climber Connection” where we reach out to climbers and communicate in a way that they can best assimilate it. Also, we’re doing one coming up called “Climber Conversations.” We’re in development on a new recruiting piece that we’re going to take to community colleges and trade schools — even to high schools. We’ve got some members who recruit from homeschool association trade shows. We’re also recruiting from the military. As I said in my testimony, they’re going to be a really important piece of the [equation].

IT: Would ex-military personnel be more comfortable with heights?

Tracy: They’re more comfortable with high pressure, high adrenaline situations. We know that they’re proven in that capacity already. Especially when you’re talking about returning combat veterans, we have a tremendous amount of respect for them.

IT: So, you’re talking about maybe convincing wireless climbers to undergo additional training to do TV towers. How much training would that take?

Tracy: It really goes back to the scope of work and how much experience they have. If you’re talking about someone who’s never worked with a gin pole before, it’s a year.

IT: And if someone has not climbed before how long does it take to train them?

Tracy: We have rudimentary training that’s available that can equip someone to climb within a couple of weeks [meaning a short wireless tower, in general.]

IT: So you need to recruit now for the repack.

Tracy: We have been recruiting already but there hasn’t been a lot of available business in the broadcast sector for the past nine years. There have been a lot of people who were previously in that, with that skillset, who are no longer doing that.

IT: One of the wireless associations told the FCC that climber crews from Canada could do the work. Is that realistic?

Tracy: We’re working really closely with the Canadians. They have an organization called STAC [which stands for the Structure, Tower and Antenna Council.] That organization is just in the development of the same standards that we’ve had for years. Their fault protection standards are different from ours. But they’re not that much different. Canada is not even, in terms of population, the size of California. Everybody wants ubiquitous coverage, but the process of getting from here to there is a fairly laborious endeavor.

Published September 12, 2017


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