Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Handiham World for 16 July 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Perhaps you have seen the ARRL story about Edward Thomas, KC0TIG, and his son. They were electrocuted while putting up an antenna. The story is a familiar one; raising an antenna and contacting high-voltage power lines with deadly results.

It is a terribly sad story. Edward's granddaughter witnessed the accident and had to alert neighbors, who called 911. Neither man could be saved.

Back in the mid 1970s, when Don, W0DN (now a silent key), and I started the Butternut antenna company, we had to learn how to make commercial antenna products. Both of us had made plenty of antennas as home-brew projects, but when you make products that you are going to sell to the public, you need to follow certain protocols. One of these was to place a bright yellow warning sticker on each antenna. That sticker, which warned against contacting power lines with the antenna, has probably saved some lives over the decades, but I suppose there is no way to know that for sure.

In the accompanying photo, you see a well-worn sticker on one of my own Butternut antennas.

"DANGER", it says, "WATCH FOR WIRES". It continues by warning the user that they can be killed by power lines and that they should read the instructions.

These days, I'm sure that all antenna manufacturers provide warning labels on their products as well as prominent warnings in the text of the assembly instructions. The problem is that such warnings become so familiar to us that we might simply begin to ignore them. As amateur radio operators, we should always put safety first. Of course no one would argue with that, but safety practices are not really something that you can simply turn on and off like a switch. People who assemble antennas cannot always be counted upon to read instruction manuals, especially the part at the beginning that cautions you to look up in the air for overhead power lines. Even the bright yellow stickers can miss getting one's attention. No, safety is not just another paragraph in the instruction manual for your antenna. It is a long-practiced habit that we have adhered to from day one, whether it be at Field Day, setting up for an emergency, or putting up a new antenna from scratch.

Always look up. Always.

The thing about habits is that they can guide us in the right direction even when the brain slips into neutral. In an emergency situation when antennas need to be put up quickly, your mind is going to be on getting set up as quickly as possible to provide communications. If you are in the habit of always scanning your surroundings, looking up, down, and around before putting up any kind of antenna structure, you are more likely to do the right thing, avoiding overhead power lines. I remember reading about another tragic accident in 2005, where four men, volunteer leaders, were electrocuted at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia. They were putting up a pole to support a dining canopy, when it apparently contacted a power line. It can happen - and does - when you least expect it. Even four sets of eyes did not see the overhead danger.

Aluminum ladders, antennas and masts, towers, guy wires, gin poles... all of these conductors are likely to be used by amateur radio operators in the normal course of antenna installation and maintenance. If you are not in the habit of looking around you for hazards, there is no time like the present to start training yourself to do so. Know your surroundings by taking a tour around your property. Where does the electrical service enter the house? Is it overhead or underground? Are there power lines running adjacent to your property? Are they overhead or underground? Simply put, this basic walk around your yard can be a life-saver. You need to avoid contacting overhead lines or digging into buried cables.

The person most responsible for your safety is YOU. Antenna manufacturers can put all the warning labels in all the right places, but having good safety habits in the first place is even a better bet! Start building those good habits today.

Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager