Recently, Urgent Communications published a couple of articles that focused on how to avoid Federal Communications Commission enforcement actions, which can include sizeable fines and license forfeitures. At the top of the tips list were the following:

  • Develop a deep knowledge base regarding the commission’s rules and regulations;
  • Ensure that license applications are accurate and signed by the appropriate person;
  • Perform adequate due diligence when choosing a frequency coordinator; and
  • Take advantage of readily available tools that offer visibility regarding license status and alert licensees about potential problems.

The licensing process is just half the battle, however. System operation is the other half, and there are plenty of things that could go wrong that will incur the wrath of not only the FCC, but the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. OSHA requires a safe workplace, and the electromagnetic energy — today’s more politically correct term for RF radiation — that is generated by radio systems potentially can create a workplace hazard, said Jeffrey Katz, the immediate past president of the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) and an enterprise IT consultant for Newark, N.J.–based PSEG Services Corp., who offered a refresher course during last month’s UTC conference in Indianapolis. He was joined during the session by Donald Vasek, UTC’s director of spectrum services.

When it comes to electromagnetic energy, or EME, the human body is an “absorptive antenna,” Katz said.

There are two types of EME: ionizing and non-ionizing. The former causes biological changes to the cellular structure of tissue, the worst of which is cancer. The latter causes tissue to heat up, which in turn causes tissue to dehydrate. In worst-case scenarios, a burn results. Other symptoms of EME exposure are fever, thirst, nausea and dizziness.

“In severe cases, the experience is similar to heat exhaustion,” Katz said. The most EME-sensitive tissue in the body is found in the eyes and the male testes, Katz said.

He added that while prolonged EME exposure to any organ can result in significant damage, the eyes are particularly vulnerable. Those who have been exposed to unsafe levels of EME over time can develop “floaters” — they appear as spots or flashes — which are the result of damage to the retina or the vitreous humor, the normally clear gel-like substance that exists between the retina and the lens. “A good safety tip when using a portable radio is to use a speaker microphone whenever possible,” Katz said. “It’s critical that people keep the antenna as far away from the eye as possible. If they don’t, they can suffer damage, especially during long transmissions.”

This establishes an important point: it’s not just towers that emit EME — all wireless devices do so.

Guidelines have been established regarding maximum permissible exposure — generally, the greater the EME, the less time allowed for exposure. But they only are guidelines. The amount of exposure that can be tolerated safely varies by individual and is affected by physical activity, ambient temperature and body temperature, Katz said.

OSHA requires that warning signs be posted at sites to alert workers that EME is present; in fact, signs are mandatory in circumstances where workers come within three feet of an EME-emitting antenna, Katz said. He suggested that all workers be required to wear RF monitors whenever they work at a site that is emitting EME.

Katz further opined that warning signs are a particularly good idea for rooftop sites, to prevent exposure to unwitting building inhabitants. An even better idea is to ensure that only authorized personnel can access antennas.

“Create barriers — make people go through a locked door to get to an antenna,” he said. “Better still, set things up so that they fall off the roof if they tried to reach it.”

In addition, owners and operators of tower sites where several licensees are collocated must ensure that the aggregated amount of EME emitted doesn’t exceed FCC regulations. Katz suggested that a baseline be established.

“The FCC will hold all accountable in collocation situations,” Katz said. “Baseline measurements will allow you to kick off the guy that pushes the group over the threshold.”

He added that tower owners and operators can add an indemnification clause to a lease agreement that allows the lessor to recoup any fines levied by the FCC from the violating lessee. But that causes other problems, Katz said.

“The FCC will view you as a bad actor,” he said. “You don’t want to be viewed as such, because that can cause problems down the road.”

Regulations exist that are designed to keep flying objects — birds, airplanes and helicopters — from crashing into towers. They apply to any tower that is:

  • More than 200 feet above ground,
  • Located on airport grounds, or
  • 20 to 200 feet above ground and falls within the slope of a runway that is located within 20,000 feet of the structure.

For towers that meet the above criteria, the FCC will recommend a paint and lighting scheme for the tower, Katz said.

“Try to avoid painting, because it’s an expensive, recurring cost,” he said.” Alternatives include mounting a red beacon that would be operational at night and using strobe lights.

If you do paint, it’s important to note that the tower must be cleaned and repainted as often as necessary to maintain visibility — “That’s a very subjective thing,” Katz said. However, the FCC provides a color chart to aid the process.

Regarding compliance, FCC rules require structure lights to be observed every 24 hours to ensure that they are working properly, Katz said. While automatic monitoring and detection systems can be used, they must be inspected every three months to ensure that they are working properly. Regardless which approach a tower owner chooses, a record of extinguished or improperly functioning lights must be maintained.

According to Katz, the tower owner bears the primary responsibility for compliance, but licensees bear secondary responsibility, and fines can exceed $10,000 for each violation.
Regarding the risks that towers present to migratory birds, the FCC dismissed claims made by the American Bird Conservancy, but a federal appeals court in 2008 disagreed with the commission, according to Katz.

“The new FCC rules that [will] come out of this will affect tower placement and the use of guy wires,” he said.

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