Learning from an Epic Tower Safety Failure

A screen capture from one of the news reports. The ham is on the far side.

A Rapid City, SD, ham survived a misadventure working on a friend’s tower. He got caught in a Crank-Up tower.

The circumstances and reasons the ham decided to climb are not covered in the news reports.  

Some take-aways are:

  • No Safety Gear
  • Climbing a Retractable Tower
  • Didn’t keep clear of pinch points
  • No rescue plan (other than calling 911 – which may be the only backup available)

Here are news article links:



I’ve discussed the perils of Crank-Up tower safety for years – see:  https://k9zw.wordpress.com/2007/11/04/crank-up-tower-safety/ from late fall 2007 after I happened to be on the air in W9EVT’s hamshack when a tower cable broke.

In quick discussion:

If you are climbing wear you safety gear.  If you don’t have safety gear, don’t climb.  Moderate height falls will hurt & kill.  

Stay off Crank-Up towers.  If they are up, even if only by a few inches, they are full of pinch-points.  The South Dakota ham perhaps thought he was safe because he was only climbing the fixed section?  While I have seen trained personnel secure a Crank-Up tower to reduce risks for unavoidable service climbs, they also fully harnessed up to climb in a very controlled method that kept hands and feet safe.  Remember if the inner sections shift the pinch point move.

Stay clear of Pinch Points.  On Crank-Up towers that are extended “Pinch Points” are actually “Shear Points” which will take off hands & fingers and toes & feet.  The forces are huge if a Crank-Up tower moves.

Have a rescue plan.  In all honesty in most cases that is calling 911, and that may be exactly what this ham climbed with a call for help as his rescue plan.  But have it thought through.  If you location is remote 911 response may be delayed or unavailable, so have a viable safety plan.

The Big Issue – Dollars:

Under the theory that the question “what will this cost?” influences decision making, and the risk analysis that most people struggle with risk assessment, the big issue becomes dollars.

“What will this cost?” usually is asked from an immediate cash expenditure point of view.  How many dollars you have to pull out of my wallet, right now?  is the question people have on their minds. 

Risk analysis is a math science where percentages come into play.  The human mind isn’t as good with percentages in decision making as we’d all like to think.  If you are presented two options – Option One a low cost but with a significant percentage (let’s make it 2% for this discussion) of escalating without control to be phenomenally expensive vs. Option Two which is moderate cost with a very low percentage of escalating (make it 0.002% in this case) – you will hear even trained professionals struggling with which is the best option.

The struggle evaluating risk tends to direct the discussion back to things we can measure right now.  And the finite thing often is money.  What does Option One cost me vs. Option Two?

Of course when the risk is set aside we end up taking Option One.

In the case of servicing a Crank-Up tower let’s look at  Option One and Option Two:

Option One – just climb the tower.  The mind evaluates things like “I will only be on the tower for a few minutes,” “I see the tower in 98% retracted,” “I’ve been okay when I’ve gone up unprotected before” and “I want the results ‘right now’ and don’t want to wait.”  It then gets reinforced by low-to-no out of pocket expenses, no special equipment to gather up, and the idea that we will get immediate positive reinforcement when the project is done.

In Option One is hard to quantify risks and the costs of those risks.  We may know that in 2% of the time the climber gets hurt, but we don’t know if that is a bruise or a fatal fall.  We don’t have hard numbers for the rescue fee, the ambulance ride, and the medical/funeral costs, much less have any values for the costs of lost work time or lost avocational time.  All fuzzy stuff that is “out there” and we put it aside.

Option Two – arrange a lift.  No matter how safe this looks the first thing that comes to mind is EXPENSIVE.  We know that out of pocket we will have a $400 to $2000 bill depending on the lift needed and where our tower is located.  We know the lift will mark up the lawn and run over the flowers, which will get the XYL riled up. So we know it will take time to get the lift and will cost us dearly – not to mention that the XYL will not be pleased.

In Option Two we may understand that the risks are less than climbing, but it is still hard to evaluate.  What does that 1000x less risk of escalation actually mean to us?  So even though we may understand there is a benefit in risk control over our first option, we don’t include it in our evaluation.

All is human nature.

Bear with me, but let’s review this in a fun away.

In my story you have to get a ticket and take a little bus trip – an all day trip.

Option One is you get a “free ticket” but you won’t know if the bus is safe or if the driver is sober until you are done with the trip.  By the way, the bus is uninsured, so if you get hurt or die those costs are yours – I mean you did get the ticket for free!  On one other thing is that historically 49 out of 50 free ticket riders arrive okay.

Option Two is you are going to pay $80 for your travel ticket.  The bus is replaced with a limo which is inspected regularly and the driver is trained professional who is subject to testing – they are a known factor.  Everything is insured and the safety record is that 49,999 of the last 50,000 riders arrived safe.  Might have been better if it wasn’t for the drunk driver that hit one of the limos back 1997.  But you are going to pay the money up front.

So what do you chose?  The “Russian Roulette” Free Bus Ticket or the Paid-For “Safe as Milk” Limo Ride?

What would you think if the $80 became $200, $500 or more?  We all have a price-pain-point where our decision making rational changes.

Well they Crank-Up Tower parallel is much the same.  

The “Free Ticket” is the unprotected climber who doesn’t recognize that they are facing lethal odds and the “Paid Limo” is calling for a lift which will have a here & now cost.

Guessing, but as there are suggestions in some of the coverage that in this tower case the guy had some serious injuries, that if we put the actual incurred costs together these hams would have held a fund raiser before they would have taken the risk.  Seriously if you have an emergency brush with the medical world even your out of pocket medical payments will be non-trivial.  

Okay, from what we know the guy will (mostly) recover and no one died. 

Well no one died this time.  

Maybe this incident is not truly “Epic” but it was getting pretty close to it.

Be safe and think ahead!  And stay off those Crank-Up towers!


Steve K9ZW


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