Investigators are continuing to study the collapse of a 1,980-foot broadcast tower in Fordland, Mo., while Ozarks Public Television works to restore the service lost in the April 19 disaster.
The fall of the tower broadcasting OPT’s KOZK-TV killed Steve LeMay, 56, and left three employees of his Washington-based tower-climbing company, Steve LeMay LLC, with minor injuries. Addressing the crew’s needs was the first priority, said Suzanne Shaw, VP of marketing and communications for Missouri State University in Springfield, KOZK’s licensee.
“Our primary focus was the tower crew, providing them with support and helping them get back home,” she said.
Investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are still on the scene, conducting an investigation into the cause of the disaster that will likely take months to yield a report.
OPT had hired LeMay to reinforce the 47-year-old tower in preparation for a $3.4 million project to repack the station’s RF channel from 23 to 16, a switch required due to shuffling of spectrum caused by last year’s FCC auction. OPT needed to mount a new antenna on the tower for channel 16 while continuing to broadcast from the existing channel 23 antenna.
LeMay and his crew were carrying out preliminary work only 100 feet up on the tower, installing bracing designed to strengthen the tower to handle the thousands of pounds of extra weight of both antennas.
Instead of becoming one of the first public TV stations to repack to a new channel after last year’s FCC spectrum auction, the broadcaster now faces a rebuilding process that could take months, if not years.
“We’ll review the site once OSHA exits and releases the area,” Shaw said. “It’s not going to be a fast process.”
The tower’s collapse left OPT without access to an estimated 40,000-45,000 viewers who depended on KOZK’s over-the-air signal, Shaw said. It also lost viewers watching on Dish Network, DirecTV and several area cable systems.
Service was restored quickly on Mediacom, one of the market’s main cable providers, as well as on DirecTV. It took more than a week for OPT to return KOZK to Dish Network customers and to start broadcasting at low power on a limited over-the-air signal from a temporary site.
OPT is reaching out to viewers in rural areas to determine which outlying cable systems may still be without a signal, Shaw said, and is beginning to plan for restoring broader over-the-air presence. Missouri State doesn’t yet have a timeline for next steps, especially as insurance companies get involved in the recovery.
“This is a huge cleanup process, and in terms of building a new tower or relocating with another broadcaster, there are a lot of things to consider,” she said.
Staying safe in a fast-paced repack
Hundreds of stations will carry out similar replacements over the next four years, a pace of tower work that industry experts have warned could lead to injuries and deaths as a limited number of crews rush to meet tight federal deadlines. Three men working on a 1,250-foot tower in Miami Gardens, Fla., fell to their deaths in September when scaffolding collapsed while they were working on a repack-related upgrade for two commercial TV stations.
“The concern a lot of people have about the repack is that the time frame is based on everything going right,” said Bill Hayes, director of engineering for Iowa Public Television. But with an accident like this one, “already not everything’s going right,” he said. Repack work is affecting many of the Iowa network’s 17 transmission sites.
“The fact is, there are so few crews that are capable of doing this work safely, and they’re going to be stretched thin,” Hayes said. “Something has to give, and the hope is that what’s going to give is the timeline.”
Without extensions to the current 39-month repack schedule, mandated by congressional budget constraints, “you can be gambling at best with the reliability of your station’s service, and at worst you’re gambling with people’s lives,” Hayes said.
LeMay had worked on tall towers for more than 25 years and was widely regarded as a safe climber, Hayes said. But the work crews like his are doing is inherently dangerous.
“A typo when you’re typing a memo is just a typo, but even a small error when you’re up on a tower can be catastrophic,” he said.