Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Handiham World for 14 October 2009

Welcome to Handiham World!

Pat, WA0TDA, points to a hole in the ground.
Photo: Here I am pointing to the spot we had to excavate for repairs after putting a ground rod directly through an irrigation system pipe during Field Day one year.

A story you will be hearing about in the weekly amateur radio news is a tragic one. ARRL and commercial media are reporting the deaths of three family members by electrocution during an antenna project. Says ARRL, "At approximately 8:40 PM on Monday, October 12, a man, woman and their 15 year old son were killed while trying to erect a 50 foot vertical antenna at the home of the man's mother, Barbara Tenn, KJ4KFF, in Palm Bay, Florida. The deceased were not licensed amateurs."

You can read the rest of the story on the ARRL site, and you should, because one of the best ways to follow up on a serious accident like this one is to take a look at the facts and begin a serious discussion about what went wrong and how to prevent another accident in the future. I will let you read the ARRL story and watch the TV news report for the details, but this story did serve to remind me of the days long ago, when Don, W0DN, now a silent key, and I started the little antenna company in Butternut Township, Blue earth County, Minnesota. Don lived in an old, rural schoolhouse, and the property was actually pretty good for an antenna business because even back in the mid-1970's it was served by underground power lines. There was no chance at all to inadvertently swing a piece of aluminum tubing up into a power line while you were busy thinking about running another SWR check and trying to be as quick about it as possible so as to get as many tests in as possible. Of course there were always other things to be careful about, but the "work area" was clear of overhead hazards, and it needed to be, because in the day in, day out routine of putting up antennas, complacency would inevitably set in and one would lift a vertical antenna up without looking skyward first.

Complacency. It's a phenomenon that is well understood and respected by trainers in aviation, driving, firearms, law enforcement... The list is endless. The way it works is that you learn about procedures that ensure the highest level of safety in whatever endeavor in which you engage, and you follow these "best practices" faithfully many times until they become routine. Nothing bad has ever happened, so you become a bit complacent - maybe you don't really need to go through that checklist each time. After all, you have never had an accident, and you know what you are doing.

Than, without warning, it happens. An "accident" that causes property damage, injury, or even death. In firearms training, it is the time even an experienced range instructor, a fellow who had given me instruction, leaves a loaded weapon within reach of a toddler - I will never forget the tragedy that his family had to live through when distracted, he left for only a moment, and one of his twins picked up a pistol and shot the other twin. In ham radio, it happens when someone works on powered up equipment or rushes to put up an antenna without looking for wires.

I doubt that it is even possible to buy a commercial antenna designed to be installed outdoors that does not carry a hazard warning about looking up and avoiding powerlines. We put them on our products way back then, but manufacturers cannot control the installation of their antennas. Amateur antennas are certainly safe enough to install and use, but they are likely to be put up in places that are full of compromises. Unlike commercial antenna installations, amateur antennas are usually not at a site designed for antennas. There might be a need to mount the antenna on a residential roof. There could be power lines running along one side of the property and a "drop" from the power pole to the house. Neighboring houses might be relatively close by. There may be vegetation or trees. All of these things are potential hazards that must be considered before you even decide what kind of antenna to install.

Starting with a plan is a good idea. If you cannot see the proposed installation yourself because you are blind or cannot access the site for some other reason, you need to get some help from your radio club. I like to take a look at a proposed site and sketch a rough drawing that includes the house, the dimensions of the property, the locations of overhead powerlines and underground utilities, and any trees, other buildings, or possible obstructions. Although there is usually a "one call" service that a homeowner can phone to get a free location assessment of underground powerlines, water pipes, and natural gas lines, you are still on your own when it comes to underground lawn sprinkler systems. Since those will not be located by the "one call" service, you will likely not have them on your sketch and will have to dig carefully.

  • It is always a good idea to plan antenna work for a time when you will have at least one "spotter" to help you out. A spotter is a person who does not necessarily climb towers or pull coax, but who will be there for you if you have an accident and help needs to be summoned.

  • Be sure you begin a big project early enough to assure that you will have daylight to complete it. If Murphy intervenes and you fall behind schedule, stop working before darkness falls and continue your project another day. In the tragic story that opened this piece, the antenna crew had run out of daylight and were working in the dark.

  • Be aware of the limitations your work crew might have. The people helping with a project may be enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but they may not know the safety basics. In this case, the crew were family members who were not licensed amateurs.

There is a fine line between "Monday morning quarterbacking" and a thoughtful discussion of what went wrong in the Florida story. One thing I do have control over is what happens the next time I put up an antenna myself. I can take charge of the project and have a plan. While that won't necessarily ward off every possible accident, it will certainly make the project safer - hopefully as safe as it can be.

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice,
Handiham Manager