The “amateur” in Amateur Radio (AKA “ham” radio) is used to specify persons interested in radio solely for personal use. The FCC distinguishes it from other radio operations by stipulating that the use of amateur radio frequencies is limited to non-commercial communication.
Most of the population, if they’ve even heard of ham radio, equate ham radio operators to old men that sit in their basement talking on antique radios. While there are those in the ham community that may fit that bill, the majority don’t. Many hams choose to participate in public service using modern gear. These men and women volunteer to help out with large public events, or when disaster strikes. They go largely unnoticed working behind the scenes maintaining the thousands of amateur repeaters across the US ready to be relied on when disaster strikes. They often use their skills and gear to get important and sometimes life saving information where it needs to go quickly and effectively, many times when there is no other means of communication. There is nothing amateur about the skills they bring to the table or the importance of the need they fill.
Unfortunately, sometimes that “amateur” label does apply. The commercial wireless industry is no stranger to the dangers of tower work. We have many workplace rules, regulations, industry associations and governing organizations that work to assure the safety of tower workers. Because amateur radio operators are non-commercial, non-profit hobbyists, these workplace rules and regulations do not apply to them even though they may be working on the very same towers the commercial tower climber is. Obviously, just because the rules can’t be enforced, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.
As with any task that has been done for decades, that “old timer” way of thinking sometimes gets applied. Since ham radio is non-commercial, budget constraints are often play a role as well. The thinking goes something like “I’ve been climbing towers 40 years with this same leather pole belt. It works fine. I don’t need a class to learn how to climb or spend $350 for a new harness.”
You know everything, until you find out you don’t. It works fine, until it doesn’t. Devastation results.
On June 9th we lost a 73 year old husband, dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather in a tower climbing accident. He was well known in the ham community, instrumental in establishing long distance ham radio links all across the southwest and was considered an experienced climber. While details about the accident have not been released, it has been mentioned that he had formal climbing training at some point in his career as a lineman for the power company, though it remains unclear how long ago that was. From recent pictures found of him climbing, he used a modern harness.
There is virtually no requirement from the FCC for ham operators to know anything about tower climbing to get their license. Most hams will never step foot on a tower. But those that do, whether on a small tower in their backyard, or on a large mountain top tower, need to be educated on the importance of 100% tie off, and the benefits of modern climbing gear.
Amateur radio operators provide a valuable service to their communities. It brings great sadness to both the amateur community as well as the industry to have to hear about a possibly preventable accident like this. The dangers to climbers are real. Gravity makes exceptions for no one. It is of the utmost importance that we work together to bring more awareness to ham operators about climber safety. Tower Safety & Instruction has decided to put together an affordable basic fall protection course geared specifically for amateurs that climb. Keeping them aware of the dangers of tower work so we do not lose any more of these giving members of society.