Field Service

Field Service at 1,700 Feet: Radio Tower Repair

Think your field service job is tough? Try climbing 1,700 feet above the ground to repair a radio-transmission tower — with only a cable rope to save you.

After watching this nail-biting video (warning: may cause bouts of nausea and/or vertigo) we definitely needed a few things sorted out: Why does the tech never look down? Isn’t there a better way of getting up there? How does he have the nerve? Is it really safe?!

We called Eric Dausman, vice president and general manager of Sutro Tower, Inc., which owns and operates the iconic 977-foot-tall Sutro Tower atop San Francisco, to get the skinny on operating at high heights. (Also check out our profile of another sky-high service job.)

TheSmartVan: So what’s the most common type of work you guys do on the tower?

Dausman: Probably the most common thing we do on Sutro is just corrosion control — we’re constantly scraping and painting, just like with the Golden Gate Bridge. In a climate like this where it’s moist a lot, you’ve got that marine fog layer that comes in and just rusts stuff. So we probably spend between two and three months during the summer, in the good weather, just scraping and painting and keeping it in good shape.

What other kind of work, besides painting, do you guys do?

The tower has all these high-intensity strobe lights scattered all over it — there’s 30 separate lights and controls and those break. The components will fail about once a month.

So someone just has to shimmy up there and change the bulb?

It’s not that bad — we don’t shimmy anywhere on this tower. There’s an elevator that takes you up most of the way. It can stop anywhere, and then there’s ladders that can go any place you need. It’s designed to be maintainable. The only climbing you have to do is once you get out. You hook in your harness, hang out there, and service the lights.

How do you find anyone willing to do that?

There’s a whole industry — iron workers, tower workers, anyone who installs iron on a building or cell phone tower. There are thousands of people who do this for trade. Plus, the safety equipment is terrific. It’s all designed to keep you from falling. And if you do, you just fall a few feet. That little lineman’s belt the guy from the phone company wore 50 years ago is long gone. We’ve got full-body harnesses with multiple attachment points and stress relievers, so if you fall it’ll keep you from stopping with a big jerk. Again, this stuff is terrific — plus my guys have gone through training and are re-certified every two years. There’s just not that many issues.

What exactly happens if Channel 7 just goes out?

Well, I’m probably not getting fired. The tower is like a great big condominium complex for radio and TV stations and wireless transmissions. So if there’s an issue and it’s something the [station] caused, that’s 100 percent their responsibility. We just have to make sure the tower remains standing and working.

All in all, you like this work, then?

Yeah! I came through the broadcast industry; I’ve been in TV engineering since 1977. So I got this job because of my experience with broadcast equipment maintenance. … So this is basically like a big technical instrument job. Sometimes it’s low-tech, like painting the tower, and sometimes it’s high-tech, like making room for new servers and new transmitters. But there’s a new project every day.

More: Extreme Field Service Jobs Roundup.

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