Public-safety communications techs do what needs to be done
ANAHEIM, Calif.—You may not know who Erik Weihenmayer is—I didn’t until yesterday morning. With all due respect to the guy in the Dos Equis beer commercial, Weihenmayer may well be the most interesting man in the world—a thought that occurred to me after listening to his keynote address yesterday at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference.
The theme of his speech was the “no-barriers mindset.” Weihenmayer knows something about barriers, having succumbed to blindness caused by a rare disorder. This didn’t stop him from becoming the first blind climber to reach the top of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, in 2001. The next year, Weihenmayer completed the Seven Summits, a rare achievement in mountain climbing that involves reaching the top of the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents.
Weihenmayer said that he was inspired by Terry Fox, who in 1980 ran more than 3,000 miles across Canada to raise money for cancer research—despite losing the lower portion of his right leg to the disease.
“There’s always a way forward,” Weihenmayer said. “Sometimes, you just have to struggle to find it.”
He has since inspired others to do great things. Weihenmayer told of a quadruple amputee—no arms, no legs—who came to him and said that he also wanted to be a climber. Weihenmayer took him in, and—with the help of some of his climber buddies—jury-rigged a padding system that consisted of towels, plastic wrap and packing tape. Then they turned him loose.
“He had to crawl over rocks, and through mud and snow,” Weihenmayer said.
Undeterred, he reached the peak of a 12,000-foot mountain in Colorado. Later, he became the first quadruple amputee to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, at 19,341 feet above sea level.
He’s not the only disadvantaged climber that Weihenmayer has inspired and helped. Another in his merry band of overachievers fell 150 feet during a climb, broke his back and was paralyzed from the waist down. For reasons that I’ll never understand, he decided that he still wanted to climb. Doing so required inventing a contraption that would allow him to pull himself up the climbing rope. He used this device to scale El Capitan—a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in California’s Yosemite National Park. In doing so, he executed an estimated 7,000 pull-ups. Think about that the next time you’re in the gym.
“These guys are alchemists,” Weihenmayer said. “They take the lead that life piles on top of them and somehow turn it into gold.”
According to Weihenmayer, people generally fall into one of three categories: quitters, campers and climbers. Most people are campers, reaching a certain level of success and then, for various reasons—fear being one of them—they move to the sideline and stagnate.
“Fear can be overwhelming—it conspires against us, it paralyzes us,” Weihenmayer said.
Climbers are the rare breed. Weihenmayer asked the rhetorical question, “Why do we climb, when it is so much easier to camp?” In his case, the fear of being swept to the sideline, and eventually living a life that meant nothing as a result, was greater than any fears he had in overcoming his blindness to accomplish what he wanted in life.
Every day, each of us faces obstacles, though certainly not on the level of Weihenmayer and his mates. Nevertheless, there’s always a moment when we have to decide whether to camp or climb, which brings me to David Taylor.
Taylor was honored yesterday by APCO as its 2013 RF Technologist of the Year. Taylor is the radio technical systems manager for Thurston 911 Communications in Olympia, Wash. He was described as a “tenacious problem-solver.” I’ll say. It turns out that Taylor has a little climber in him, as well. Once, his area was hit with a storm that dumped 15 inches of snow and then freezing rain. As a result, the agency’s primary radio tower—located three miles up a mountain—stopped operating.
Taylor and an assistant headed toward the tower, using a chainsaw to cut their way through fallen trees, despite the fact that high winds were causing more trees to fall around them. Reluctantly, they aborted the mission, though only temporarily. Undeterred, Taylor commandeered a caged bulldozer and plowed a path up the mountain.
Once there, he discovered huge icicles shearing from the tower, with enough force to penetrate the reinforced roof of the equipment shelter. No matter. Taylor and his assistant braved this danger to restore generator power. Then, they moved to another remote site. Over seven grueling days, they visited 24 sites, maintaining radio communications until commercial power could be restored.
When asked about the work that he does, Taylor reportedly said, “I just do what needs to be done.”
There are many David Taylors in public-safety communications, and I think his words would make a fitting slogan for the sector. Talk about a “no-barriers” mindset.