By J. Sharpe Smith, Inside Towers Technology Editor
Winton “Dub” Wilcox, Jr., had a way of making grown men, in this case-hardened tower climbing veterans, keenly aware of the perils of tower work. When he founded the tower safety company Comtrain in 1996, long-time climbing veterans thought taking safety classes was ludicrous. So, Wilcox wrote a rather colorful training textbook full of anecdotes and stories.
“Every time he’d get to explaining a specific piece of equipment, or technique, he would tell a tragic story of what would happen if the tool wasn’t used properly or the technique wasn’t performed correctly,” said Zane Windham, President of Comtrain, who purchased the company in 2011.
The tower industry’s main concern when Comtrain began was simply that climbers would meet OSHA guidelines for tower safety and rescue, according to Windham. Comtrain’s initial offering was a two day basic tower climbing safety & rescue class, one day in the classroom and one day on the tower. The Competent level of training had not yet been defined by OSHA.
A lot has changed since then. Multiple levels of rigging training were added over the past four to five years as the tower industry reacted to a spate of fatal accidents that were caused by bad rigging practices. Since then, online classes have been added for Basic Rigging Principles, Capstan Hoist Operator, Crane Spotter and Signal Person, and RF Safety. More online classes are in the works.
“The number of certifications that are needed for a technician to be allowed to work on a tower is growing every year,” Windham said.
Wilcox had a tower construction and maintenance company in the Northeast when the cellular industry was taking off in the mid-1990s. AT&T, which built the first cellular network, worked with him to develop the original standardized, reviewable and accepted Tower Climbing Safety and Rescue training program for the fast growing industry.
Today, Comtrain celebrates 25 years of providing tower safety training for climbers on behalf of their employers, which may be a carrier, a tower company, a tower service company or an integrator.
Many times, a company will send an individual to Comtrain to train and certify as an In-House Instructor. The Train-the-Trainer program has been critical for companies to maintain and grow their certified teams of climbers, especially during the pandemic when travel has been severely restricted.
“To keep climbers certified and compliant through the COVID pandemic, companies have needed their own in-house instructor to deliver an acceptable form of training to comply with their customers’ demands for certified tower climbers,” Windham said.
Comtrain travels twice a week to bring its training to over 30 cities around the country, plus San Salvador, El Salvador, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where it offers training in Spanish, two or three times a year. Comtrain trains 2,500 to 3,000 climbers annually in open enrollment classes. Through in-house instructors, made possible through the train-the-trainer program, 15,000 certifications are cut annually. In total, Comtrain counts more than 300,000 total graduates over the last quarter century.
“We go to the climber so that the company doesn’t have to pay to come to us. And that’s huge for them,” Windham said. “The certificates are expensive, as it is, without having to travel and send the climbers off for two or three days to get it done.”
Future tower work will only get more complicated as 5G and 6G technologies are deployed, Windham said. As a result, Comtrain is creating one-week, two-week and three-week programs that provide comprehensive knowledge of the business and technology of towers, as well as how to rig and climb safely and perform rescues.
“They need to be tech savvy, as well as construction and climb savvy,” he said. “That’s making the position much more sophisticated. It also means it needs a person with a higher skill set and that means they need more training before they can take the job.”
Comtrain’s training in the future will instill more knowledge than ever before.
For more information about Comtrain, visit https://www.comtrainusa.com