Daily Archives: November 18, 2009

Mast v. power lines

Outside the Fulton Co. Jail, NW Atlanta 11.18.09

A WSB TV crew failed to lower its 40-foot mast following a noon live shot at the Fulton County jail today.  WGCL reports the operator drove the truck, mast extended, into some power lines.  That triggered an explosion which damaged the truck and sent a surge of electricity into the ground below, damaging a water main.  Amazingly, the crew survived and sustained only moderate injuries.  Tom Jones was the reporter on the story and presumably riding in the passenger’s seat when the accident happened.  Leonard Raglin, a longtime WSB and WXIA veteran, was the photographer / truck operator.

Harry Samler of WGCL took some photos of the truck.  Samler reports that the mast’s impact with the power lines caused an explosion which blew the dish from the top, as well as a section of the mast.  The photos show a shorched area around the engine of the vehicle.  Samler’s coverage is here.  WSB’s site is here, but at this writing there appears to be no coverage.  (WSB has since added a brief copy story here.)

The photos also show that the power lines are straight-from-the-substation transmission lines.  Samler reports they carried 115,000 volts.

The safe operation of a live truck is a drill that’s recited in TV newsrooms at least as often as the fact-checking essentials of newsgathering.  Trucks have warning labels, front and back, that remind the operator that you can be killed if the mast comes into contact with a power line.  Yet live trucks are also part of the mind-numbing newsgathering routine at many TV stations, where perhaps a majority of stories are delivered with the help of these vehicles.  Truck operators aren’t supposed to get complacent.  If they do, it can be deadly.

Photos by Harry Samler, WGCL

The most dangerous part of the mast vs. powerline encounter can come afterward, when the crew is trying to exit the electrified vehicle.  If the truck comes in contact with power lines, the crew is taught to jump forcefully out of the vehicle, so that they aren’t in contact with the ground and the vehicle at the same time.  Morse Diggs  actually demonstrates this during WAGA’s coverage of the accident.

In this case, Samler tells LAF that it appears the truck lost contact with the power lines after the top of the mast blew off.  This means the electrification of the truck was powerful but brief.  It ruptured the asphalt below the truck.  It set the engine on fire.  And it somehow spared Raglin and Jones from serious injury.

Most live trucks I’ve ridden in have ear-splitting alarms that go off if there’s even a hint that the mast isn’t stowed.  The alarm goes off the instant the driver puts the truck into gear.   On rare occasions, the alarms go off erroneously.  As deadlines approach, the operator’s only choice may be to temporarily disable the alarm.  Sometimes those alarms don’t get fixed, and the subsequent truck operator may not know that this safety device isn’t working.  It’s not clear what happened in this instance.

Samler narrates the video below.  Like him, I’m delighted that I’m not writing about a fatal accident.